Interview: Johnnie and Taiko of Sake Nomi

Johnnie_taiko.jpgJohnnie and Taiko Stroud have something really unique in Seattle. I haven’t yet had the chance to visit, but it sounds like a little piece of paradise… they operate a Sake store called Sake Nomi, that also happens to be a sake tasting bar! How cool is that? Johnnie and Taiko were kind enough to answer some Urban Sake interview questions. I was really excited to find out how Seattle’s famous all-sake store came to be and what the future holds…

Q: I’ll ask you the question I get asked all the time: How did you get into sake?
‘Can’t really pinpoint how I (Johnnie) got into sake, though I had never had any sake before I first went to Japan (Iwate prefecture) to teach English in 1988. My first three years of living in Iwate, I spent a great deal of time at nomikai (“drinking parties”), with friends and colleagues, so that’s when I developed a fondness for it. At some point, both Taiko and I realized we preferred good sake to other alcoholic beverages.

Q: was there one sake in particular that pushed you over the edge into sake obsession?
Though I can’t really point to one sake in particular, the most memorable sake I ever had was after a basketball tournament in Japan. My teammates brought a 1.8 liter bottle and some plastic cups into the outdoor tub at a hot spring resort, and we drank sake from the floating bottle as snow fell around us. It probably wasn’t a super premium grade or anything, but I remember it as one of my best sake experiences 20 years later.

Sake_nomi.jpgQ: What motivated your decision to open a sake shop?
Taiko and I met and married in Japan, and relocated to Seattle in August of 1996. We accomplished our goal of finding Japan-related work, eventually establishing a wholesale apparel company to export new and used clothing to Japan. After a few years, we began discussing the possibility of using our company to import Japanese goods for sale in the U.S. It was important to us to find something rare and uniquely Japanese that we could share with U.S. consumers, and somehow we hit upon the idea of premium sake. During our trips to favorite Seattle Japanese restaurants and Asian grocery stores, we often lamented the lack of quality sake choices, knowing there must be thousands of unique and delicious brews being produced throughout Japan, but not yet known in the U.S.

Our personal experience confirmed this intuition; Shiwa-cho, my “second hometown” in Iwate, boasted five breweries (with a population of only 30,000!), and Taiko’s home prefecture, Ibaraki, features over sixty.

The more we discussed the situation, the more we realized that we had found something we were passionate about bringing to U.S. consumers: high-quality, locally produced, premium Japanese sake.

Q: What are some of your favorite sakes right now?
Taiko: Taiheikai (“Pacific Ocean”), Yoinotsuki (“Midnight Moon”), and Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmai Ginjo
A: Johnnie: Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmai Ginjo, Kudoki Jozu Junmai Ginjo, Minenohakubai Junmai, Tsukasabotan Senchu Hassaku
I also have a sweet spot in my heart and palate for all the products from Tsukinowa Brewery (one of which is the Yoinotsuki mentioned above), since the brewery is located in my “second hometown,” and the current toji, Hiroko Yokosawa, is one of my former middle school English students! Hiroko-san will be visiting Sake Nomi in October, and it will be a great thrill for us to have her see our friends enjoying her delicious sake.

at_sake_nomi.jpgQ: You offer a lot of fun activities for your customers such as Sake Cinema, Wii Wednesdays and Sake Nomi Golf Outtings… How has the response been?
The response has been great. It’s always been our goal to make Sake Nomi more than just a sake shop. We want sake enthusiasts to feel like it’s “their” space, and it’s definitely taken on a kind of “social club” atmosphere.

Q: You have a unique situation as you have a tasting bar and sake shop in the same space, which is totally verboten here in New York. what are the advantages or disadvantages to this set up?
The obvious advantage is that people can try a sake — take it for a test drive by the glass — before purchasing. We rotate our glass pour menu every week, so people have a chance to explore different brews all the time.

‘Can’t really think of any disadvantages, aside from the fact that due to quirky state liquor laws, as a “tavern” we are unable to ship sake from our current location. We’re currently in the application process for another license which will allow us to ship sake from a separate location.

Q: How has your “all sake” shop been received in Seattle? do you think the future looks bright for Sake in the U.S.?
The reception has been terrific, and we’re encouraged by all the positive feedback that we made the right decision to “follow our dream.” We think the future for sake in the U.S. is very bright. Based on the response of the folks in Seattle to whom we’ve introduced sake, it feels like it’s just a matter of making more people aware of what good sake’s all about. A couple key points will be getting sake on more restaurant menus, and disseminating information regarding the health benefits of premium sake versus other alcoholic beverages.


Johnnie and Taiko – thank you both so much for taking the time for an Urban Sake interview! I think what you guys are doing is just fantastic and I wish you the best of luck spreading the Gospel of Sake in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll be seeing me for sure on my next trip to your neck of the woods! Thanks again and Kanpai!

Saké Nomi
Premium Sake Shop and Tasting Bar
76 South Washington Street
Seattle, Washington 98104
Tel: 206-467-SAKE