May 2012

TY KU: Saké’s Warrior Brand

By: Rachel Burkons

Saké, perhaps more than any other beverage category in the United States, has been patient on the path to stardom. Despite a rich and ancient heritage, saké has remained largely misunderstood, served warm in ceramic carafes at sushi joints, overshadowed as a mere bombing partner for beer and mislabeled as everything from a spirit to a rice wine on its path to the spotlight (Extraordinary Tip Number One: Saké is actually brewed in a process similar to that used in beer production and is therefore more like rice beer).

Meet the Saké Logun: CeeLo Green’s newest alter-ego, the extraordinary warrior-protector of TY KU Saké.

But after decades of mystery and misunderstanding, saké is making inroads with American consumers whose ever-exploratory and increasingly-educated palates are eager to conquer new categories. Tastemaking mixologists have elevated saké by embracing its swapability in a variety of cocktails, and restaurants and bars have begun to examine saké’s potency as a white wine-alternative on wine lists that fall outside the traditional mainframe of Asian-focused fare (Extraordinary Tip Number Two: Only drinking saké with Asian foods is like only drinking scotch with haggis. Enough said).

Most importantly, the saké category finally has a Warrior Brand to defend its honor, educate and appeal to U.S. consumers and activate the trade on all levels: TY KU.

The Battle Begins

When TY KU launched in Las Vegas in 2007, the brand’s founders, a couple of self-described “Japanophiles,” approached the prospect of launching a line of premium sakés in the U.S. with two distinct goals in mind: First, the product would need to honor the Japanese tradition and cultural significance of saké; second, it would need to open the category to a U.S. audience.

“We started this company out of our deep respect for the culture and heritage of Japan, and a real desire to bring the best of The East to The West,” explains Andrew Chrisomalis, one of the brands founding partners. “But there was also a real need to demystify Japanese sakés and spirits for the American consumer.”

Southern Wine and Spirits Director of Mixology Francesco Lafranconi has been a longtime saké evangelist, and credits TY KU’s influence on the category for the industry. “When bartenders get the kind of education the TY KU team is providing, they begin to understand the DNA of the product,” he says.

Faced with a challenge to both respect and modify tradition, TY KU’s flagship product was its innovative Citrus Liqueur, made from soju and a variety of traditional Japanese flavors (Extraordinary Tip Number Three: Soju/shochu is the number one distilled spirit in the world, and TY KU Soju is crafted from Japanese barley). With its illuminated pyramid-tower bottle glowing a vibrant and eye-catching green, TY KU Citrus Liqueur would become a beacon for the brand as it shifted gears to focus on its true mission: demystifying saké.

Since its introduction in the United States, one of saké’s biggest hurdles was a simple language barrier: Brand names and labels had long been printed in only Japanese, leaving the uninitiated English-speaking consumer not only in the dark about exactly what they were drinking, but also in a difficult position to remember which sakés they may have liked so they could order them again. So when TY KU launched with English-language bottles and a pronounceable, memorable brand name that demands repeat calls, saké was suddenly scrutable.

“We were the first ones out there to market saké like a spirit company,” explains Tara Fougner, Director of Marketing for TY KU. Fougner likens saké’s ascent to that of tequila, a category that was also once largely misunderstood and rose to commercial prominence by Americanizing the language and branding on the bottle. “We made a conscious decision to go with an Americanized name in English characters, because it simply made sense. We had to think outside of the box to innovate the category.”

Amassing a TY KU Army

Decipherable branding was the first step on TY KU’s path to saké stardom, but it would take more than a catchy name to truly burst through the fog surrounding the category. “It all starts with the saké, with what’s in the bottle,” admits Fougner. “We’re here to bring authentic Japanese saké to the American consumer, first and foremost.”

With eye-catching bottle shape that rises off the backbar and branding in English, TY KU has made saké accessible to the U.S. audience.

With four sakés currently in the portfolio, TY KU has kept authenticity in its sights while also offering value-driven options to the burgeoning saké consumer. TY KU Silver, the brand’s Junmai expression, TY KU Black, the Junmai Ginjo and TY KU Coconut Nigori are produced in Nara, Japan, the birthplace of saké, where the first brewery dates back to 680 A.D., and TY KU White, the brand’s ultra-premium Junmai Daiginjo, is handcrafted in Yamagata, where the best sakés in the world are produced.

With traditional Japanese production giving way to world-class sakés and uniquely Americanized branding appealing to a wide base of consumers, TY KU has presented a rare opportunity to the trade as a brand that not only sells on exotic appeal, but also accessibility.

“TY KU was the very first to capitalize on the opportunity to market saké to in a very accessible manner, so the less sophisticated consumer can feel comfortable with the product, but the product inside the bottle is one of the best on the market,” explains Southern Wine and Spirits Director of Mixology Francesco Lafranconi, a true evangelist for the brand since its inception. “TY KU brings a different approach and energy and excitement for the saké category to the industry. This is a product that will be responsible for increasing the popularity of saké in the United States.”

“Another very savvy move, marketing-wise, was to create a range of sakés at different price points,” continues Lafranconi. In Las Vegas, where more saké is sold than anywhere else in the U.S., Michael LaPorte, General Manager at hip eatery Social House agrees: “TY KU is an interesting brand, because it really has appeal on both sides. You can have a product like TY KU Silver that’s less ‘traditional,’ and meant for a new palate, someone trying saké for the first time. Or you can have the TY KU White, which is a delicious, beautiful saké that can appeal to an expert or traditionalist in a very easy way. There’s something for everybody.”

With the trade firmly in its corner, TY KU has continued its battle for the saké category with extensive, ongoing consumer education through a variety of channels, including clever social media initiatives, a branded presence at popular youth-driven events such as South by Southwest and strategically-selected celebrity partnerships that have truly given the brand—and the category—a voice.

A Voice for Saké

In the wine and spirits industry, finding a celebrity partnership that is truly reflective of your brand’s particular appeal is a delicate dance: You want an evangelist for the brand who taps into a diverse audience, but you also want someone whose personal style, tenets and passions are consistent with your own.

Las Vegas’s Social House is an on-premise evangelist for TY KU. General Manager Michael LaPorte and his staff turn to TY KU to help customers find the right saké to suit their needs. “There’s something for everyone,” he says.

TY KU has found perfect fits in owner-partnerships with online impresario Perez Hilton, who’s championed TY KU Soju as a key part of his well-documented weight loss (Extraorindary Tip Number Four: Soju, also known as Shochu, packs half the calories of most vodkas), and TV’s Millionaire Matchmaker, Patti Stanger, whose hit show will “feature TY KU as the fourth star” on the upcoming sixth season. These partnerships do double-duty, providing not only big-name endorsement, but also major outlets for continued education on the brand and the saké/soju categories as a whole.

“Patti is very innovative, and is a great partner in helping us get our message out,” explains Chrisomalis, “and Perez Hilton is an icon in the online world. He’s aided our efforts to become the number one brand online in the industry—wine or spirits!—tremendously.”

But as TY KU has whittled away at the mystique surrounding the category, creating a larger space for saké in the cultural lexicon, the brand has secured a brand warrior like no other to propel saké’s push into the spotlight: He’s in our living rooms twice a week the hit TV show, The Voice, he’s got a massive and loyal following online, he serenaded throngs of fans on the 50 yard line during this year’s Superbowl halftime show and, oh yeah, he won two Grammys this year.

He’s CeeLo Green, but you can  call him the Logun, the new Shogun of saké.

“When we first started talking to CeeLo, we knew that this would be a perfect partnership,” explains Fougner. “He approached us with a strong vision and said, ‘I want to be a saké professor. I want to be a warrior champion.’” Known for his fantastically funky and outlandish outfits, CeeLo invented a new saké-inspired persona for himself, updating the ancient tradition of the Japanese Shogun with his signature soulful style.

“The Logun is yet another alter ego of CeeLo Green,” CeeLo tells THE TASTING PANEL. “I’m a master marketer, and I don’t mind my sense of humor being infused into whatever I’m doing—but we’re serious about having fun. The Logun is there to ensure that everyone is drinking TY KU Saké,” he says coyly, suggesting that if you aren’t, you’re missing out on something special.

To get people on board with TY KU, the Logun will be a valuable voice in TY KU’s educational efforts. “It’s really important to us that we use our partnerships as an educational platform, but in a way that’s also fun, approachable and memorable,” continues Fougner.

With CeeLo’s authoritative persona doing double duty as educator and entertainer, TY KU will continue to be the driving force in the saké category. “In the U.S., saké consumption is really ballooning up, and we’re very excited to be a part of that,” says Fougner. “With TY KU, we want people to feel more comfortable and confident ordering saké. It’s not ‘Oh, I’ll just have your house saké’ anymore, because we’re giving consumers an accessible option. If a consumer knows TY KU, either through our marketing efforts or partnerships or just as part of the category’s growth, it gives them a level of confidence when ordering saké, and allows them to explore premium sakés as well.”

And for funk/soul/saké master CeeLo Green, saké confidence is important. “TY KU is very soft spoken; it’s not aggressive, and it’s subtle, but there’s power in making that choice, and in having great taste.” The funk-soul master, known to be a bit of a Lady Killer (the name of this Grammy-winning third album), continues, inviting the uninitiated to dip their toes into the TY KU waters: “And there’s definitely something sexy about doing something for the first time!”

TY KU in Sin City

At Social House in Las Vegas, guests from all over the world experience TY KU. From TY KU Silver sold in carafes at happy hour, to TY KU Black and White on bottle service, Social House offers a TY KU for every level of saké consumer. “TY KU is a good reflection of the way I like to think about the entire beverage selection here at Social House: There’s something for everybody, but also at the highest quality possible,” explains General Manager Michael LaPorte.

While La Porte is partial to TY KU White, calling its release “a clear dedication to making a quality product,” he also makes use of TY KU’s two spirit releases, TY KU Citrus Liqueur and TY KU Soju for the restaurant’s cocktail program. “We’ll get a lot of young ladies coming in and asking for a ‘skinny’ cocktail, so we’ll suggest this drink,” says LaPorte, who whipped up the Rodan for us to show just how versatile TY KU can be.

The Rodan
◗    1¼ oz. TY KU Soju
◗    ¾ oz. TY KU Citrus Liqueur
◗    ¾ oz. fresh lime juice
◗    ¾ oz. simple syrup
◗    2 oz. lemon lime soda
◗    Sugar cane stick garnish


Meet the Newest TY KU: Coconut Nigori

At last month’s WSWA Convention, THE TASTING PANEL caught up with Southern Wine & Spirits Director of Mixology Francesco Lafranconi and team TY KU to get Lafranconi’s thoughts as he tasted the just-released TY KU Coconut Nigori for the first time (Drink Extraordinary Tip Number Five: Nigori Saké is unfiltered, giving it a cloudy appearance).

“The new sibling in the TY KU family, Coconut Nigori, is incredibly delicate and sophisticated. The coconut is so well integrated into the saké, but the saké is still allowed to come through,” Lafranconi told us, moments after his first sip. “The tropical fruit is not overpowering, and there is good balance. It’s so simple to become addicted to this product!”

Lafranconi was so inspired that he created a recipe featuring the product: Meet TY KU Coconut Nigori, the shining star in the Exotic Feelings cocktail.

Exotic Feelings
◗    3 oz. TY KY Coconut Nigori
◗    1 oz. vanilla vodka
◗    2 oz. Fever-Tree Ginger Beer
◗    3 sprigs of fresh mint
◗    Juice of 1 lime wedge
◗    Muddle mint in a Collins glass briskly,
then add remaining ingredients. Fill glass with ice,
stir and serve with lime squeezed on top.
Garnish with mint sprig and fresh-shaved coconut.


What the Stars are Saying

TY KU’s celebrity partnerships are hands-on collaborations. Left: Millionaire Matchmaker Patti Stanger and TY KU Western Regional Manager Kelly Reid Smith enjoy the extraordinary life. Right: The TY KU-Lo Team at the CeeLo Green/Logun photo shoot work together to create great things. Anthony Martini, TY KU Music and Talent Manager; Khristian Tejada, TY KU Creative Director; Chauncey Bell, CeeLo Green Assistant Manager; Tara Fougner, TY KU Director of Marketing.
THE TASTING PANEL spoke with TY KU owner-partners CeeLo Green and Patti Stanger to find out exactly what they love so much about the innovative brand. Here are a few highlights:

On the (low-cal and gluten/sulfite-free) health benefits of saké and soju: Patti Stanger: I’m gluten-free, so when I saw this particular brand, I really fell in love with it, like it was my drink. I can drink it and not get a headache, and it really feels like part of a healthier life.

CeeLo Green: You drink to commemorate and celebrate a job well done, and I think if you’re drinking healthy you can drink a little bit more!

On their favorite way to drink TY KU: Patti Stanger: In our business, we’re always having cocktails, and we drink saké with everything. I love the Soju straight and the Citrus Liqueur with a bit of sparkling water, and I think a TY KU Mojito is the perfect first date cocktail.
CeeLo Green: My favorite way to drink it was when I won two Grammys last month. But I would have it with Chilean Sea Bass: Saké, sea bass and CeeLo Green—that’s not a one-night stand, that’s a weekend!

On the future of saké with TY KU: Patti Stanger: One thing about saké is that it is very romantic. I want to learn more about the culture of saké and take it mainstream and more Western, and I think you’re going to be seeing a lot of TY KU this season on the show. I’m going to teach how to cook with it on the show, and I’ve found a way to make tiramisú with TY KU Soju.
CeeLo Green: Saké is not as Americanized as it will be when we make it more accessible. The agenda is to open it up to a broader market, where saké is something that can be enjoyed casually at the club—or anywhere.

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