Well, it’s been the 21st Century for a few years now and while we don’t yet have flying cars in every garage, there has been some pretty cool stuff happening! We’ve elected the first African American President, driven remote controlled rovers on the surface of Mars, and even invented Twitter!
As for me, my thoughts of the future never stray too far from sake, so you can imagine my interest was piqued when I heard about a new futuristic web 2.0 sake site hitting the internet called SakeSocial.com that was aiming to bring sake selling, sake education and sake community 100% online and into the 21st Century. I recently caught up with the web entrepreneur and SakeSocial.com founder Marc Smookler to find out how he discovered sake, what inspired his website and, what has sake breweries knocking down his door to join in.
Q: Tell me how you got interested in sake? Did you have a sake “a-ha moment”? What on earth inspired you to start SakeSocial.com?
Marc Smooker: First, let me say that I am not, nor have I ever been, a big drinker. People should not assume that just because I launched a sake community that I am a booze hound. In fact, sake is one of the harder ways to get â€œtipsyâ€. If one was looking to zero in on drunkenness, he/she should simply pick up a bottle of vodka or whiskey.
I became interested in sake through a gradual processâ€”I call it my maturation through aperitifs. I started like most midâ€westerners: Milwaukeeâ€™s Best while huddled in my parentâ€™s basement at age 16; then my roughshod college years of fraternity life of Jager and the occasional chaser of Coors Light; after college I graduated to the more refined hard alcohols and the various splashes of color; then the tired years of long days and the Red Bull infused Vodka drinks that took me through my 20â€™s; then the inevitable ulcer that put an end to my hard alcohol daysâ€”uggghâ€¦back to beerâ€¦
Then it happened. I moved to Los Angeles, found some good sushi restaurants, and was turned onto sake. Never a fan of wine, I quickly became a fan of sake due to its clean taste, subtle dryness, and complementary nature. I was driven to sushi restaurants by my sake cravings. Eventually I found a sake that I preferred but unfortunately the only restaurant that served it was subâ€par. So I ventured online one night and tried to find a site that sold this particular brand. Couldnâ€™t find it anywhere. In fact, I couldnâ€™t find a single site that sold sake. That night SakeSocial was born.
Shortly after I bought the domain name I called one of my best friends, Jason Laskowski, who just happens to love his beer and cozy, and I convinced him to go out and buy a bottle or 2 of good sake. After he downed the bottles, he called me back and was on board. Also along the way, I have added a few key players to the team, including Beau Timken. On a side note, still to this day I have to convince my wife that just because I started SakeSocial, I do *not* want to become a booze shiller. I am here to provide a serviceâ€”and a badly needed service at that.
Q: What is unique about your website?
Marc Smooker: We are simply the only ecommerce sake site that provides: a place to learn, purchase, find *your* perfect bottle, and interact with your likeâ€minded community. Our site:
- Helps consumers find what sake brew(s) best suit their palate;
- Provides a community where others can share their thoughts;
- Offer a Sake of the Month Club where an expert takes consumers on a tasting adventures; and,
- Presents an easyâ€toâ€use ecommerce experience with peer reviews and suggestions.
And lastly, we have gone to great lengths to make sure we are doing things legally. Many of our smaller competitors are just simply taking orders and shipping to whomever, wherever. Not only does this create a liability for the company, but for the customers and importers too. Yes this has increased *our* (not your) costs a bit, but, we are looking to both protect ourselves and our customers. Come July 1st, we will still only be able to ship to only 25 states.
Q: Have you had any reaction from Japanese Brewers or Japanese sake peeps to SakeSocial.com? What do they think of your efforts to sell sake online in the USA?
Mark Smooker: The breweries actually sell a fair amount of sake onâ€line in Japan â€“ so naturally the brewers have been curious why Americans donâ€™t sell sake online. We have to explain the insane legal issues of interstate alcohol sales and they canâ€™t believe that the laws are so difficult â€“ so arduous. As we bring on breweries/importers, and we explain the process we had to go through, they start to see why very few companies have braved the waters. I guess I am just a glutton for punishmentâ€¦
Also, to add to this point, I am proud of the team at SS (SakeSocial) for representing us, and sake for that matter, in a professional manner. This has gone a long way to assure the breweries that we are the horse to bet on. Lastly, I would like to say that now that we have traversed the shark infested waters of prohibition era liquor laws, and we are making sales/waves, the breweries are literally knocking down our door to get on board.
Q: Tell us about the sakes you’ve selected… Any of your personal favorite brews among your sake selection?
Marc Smooker: Beau actually has a really good blog post on this subject that we havenâ€™t posted yet, but, it really comes down to timing and effort. As you can imagine, with our SakeSelector Tool, all our ecommerce widgets, and all the regulation; adding a simple bottle of sake takes a herculean effort. You canâ€™t just upload one in our database and start shipping. It literally takes 2 months to add a brew to our whole ecomm and warehousing system, and, of course getting all the documentation together for the Alcohol Beverage and Tobacco agencyâ€¦both state and federal 🙁 Did I forget to mention that we have to do lab testing and then submit the finding to the FDA? Goes on and onâ€¦.I am sweating again just thinking about it.
So, how do we choose which ones to start off the process? In the beginning it was simple, who was willing to work with us 🙂 Now itâ€™s differentâ€¦.we are fighting them back and are able to pick and choose.
And, regarding your last questionâ€¦wellâ€¦my latest Sake Selector Tool walk through put me in the following bottle:
However, now that I look at my Selector Tool answers, I was pairing with BBQâ€¦.letâ€™s just say my diet is making my body crave BBQâ€¦ What sake does our Selector Tool choose for you?”
Q: Selling/shipping sake to various States sounds to me like a nightmareâ€ish tangled web of bureaucracy. What have been the biggest challenges to selling sake online so far?
Mark Smooker: I touched on this a bit already, but, yes, a nightmare that still gives me fits. After everything that we have done over the past year, after hiring multiple law firms, I can still only ship to 25 states. The local liquor and grocery stores have a much bigger lobbyist war chest than I do 😉 However, what is strange to me is that limiting interstate commerce is illegal according to Federal mandatesâ€¦ but…again, who is going to fight that battle? Other than the above challenge, just starting a company in general is no easy featâ€¦.and after 4 startups, it still scares the heck out of me. Ecommerce adds another cog that you have to work through. But, the biggest challenge of all has been to both educate and convince the American consumer that sake simply rocks!!!
Q: What are your thoughts on the future of sake in the USA?
Marc Smooker: I hope its bright 🙂 Japanese culture is becoming more pervasive in America and sake is riding that wave. It will take some time, but, sake *will* become common placeâ€”even if I have to brave this fight alone!
In closing Tim, I would like to say that starting SakeSocial has been an absolute blast. Websites like ours are literally creating a market from the ground up, and being there at the beginning, while having its risks, is what makes it so fun. I have met a lot of great people, a lot of great companies, and a lot of really cool brewery owners in Japan that are salivating to enter the US marketplace.
I just hope we can provide them all a home that consumers continually come to to buy some wickedly good brews!
Thanks Marc! It’s hard to believe all the hoops the government makes the industry jump through just to get some premium nihonshu to the people!
Well, keep up the good fight and I’m happy to pass on my flying car for now if you promise to someday deliver your sake-of-the-month club to my friends on Mars… once the FDA signs off, of course.
Best of luck and Kanpai!