Two years ago, Genki Ito walked into an entrepreneur class called Technology Feasibility at the University of California (USC) as he worked on his MBA. For his final project, he developed the concept for an online platform to sell the largest selection of sake in the United States. The result is Tippsy Sake, a subscription service that not only delivers the Japanese tipple to your door monthly, but also provides plenty of guidance and information, so you learn as you go.
Ito’s connection to sake began with his family. Born and raised in Nagoya, Japan, he remembers his parents drinking sake on special occasions. “We use to have a New Year’s celebration at my grandma’s place,” he tells us. “My dad and uncles would drink a lot of sake. They would offer me a taste when I was very little. Typically in Japan, sake is a drink for celebrations. People buy expensive food and sake. You don’t drink wine to pair with the traditional New Year food. It is always sake.”
Then, when Iko moved to Hawaii (after a stint in Tokyo) and worked for importer Wismettac Asian Food, he began to further his appreciation for and understanding of sake. One of their clients, Marukai, hosts seasonal festivals. “We poured a lot of sake for them,” Ito says. “That’s when I tasted really authentic, quality sake. I would take a sip and be surprised how pure and delicious it is. It completely changed my perception of sake.” It was at one of those events 10 years ago that Ito tried his favorite sake: Kudoki Jozu. “It is sweet and robust, with apple aromas and banana. It’s an aromatic ginjo,” he says. “I like to drink it a wine glass.”
While at USC, it dawned on him that although growing in popularity, “sake still seemed very foreign to many people.” The mission for Tippsy became immediately clear: to offer customers access to high-quality sake and helpful information. “Many people don’t know where to start when they want to order sake,” he says.
Each month, Tippsy delivers three small bottles of sake along with the details on breweries and style and tasting notes. They are careful to select tipples with varying flavors and characteristics, giving customers a broader understanding of sake, and helping them discover their own taste. “Once they recognize what they like,” Ito says, “They can keep the card and go to our website and order a bigger bottle.” The Tippsy site is also home to heaps of useful tips and stories. Ito and Tippsy’s creative director, Michi Kurisaki, bring together content from experts in the bar world, as well as wine and sake sommeliers. Everything from an introduction to sake, to etiquette, important definitions, descriptions of rice polishing ratios, varieties, storage tips, serving suggestions and food pairing ideas.
Over the years, Ito has tasted hundreds of sakes and draws upon his experience, but also frequently converses and visits with industry experts. “When I had the idea to start this company, I connected with breweries in Japan to get some help. Hakkaisan brewery is one of the most prestigious breweries in Japan in Niigata. They said they could help. The Toji’s [aka master brewer] name is Mr Nagumo.” Ito flew to Japan to visit Nagumo and learn more about the sake-making process. “We visited their rice field before harvest—it was beautiful,” he tells us. “We went trekking to see the water source they use for their sake. I had a few drinks with the brewing master over dinner. We had a great experience there.”
Tippsy started off with 200 sakes from 60+ breweries and now have around 250, but Ito says he plans on adding more—many of which are difficult to purchase. “Our customers like the surprise of the subscription box,” Ito says. “They want to open it each month and see what is inside.”
The April Tippsy box features three sakes: Fujuku Blue from Hyogo Prefecture, Denshin “Yuki” from Fukui Prefecture, and Kamotsuru Nama-Kakoi Junmai from Hiroshima.
For all of his focus bringing sake from Japan to the United States, Ito will always honor sake-brewing history and cultural traditions. After all, his sake journey is personal. He tells us, the last time he was in Nagoya with his family, he visited his grandparents. “I drank some sake with my grandma.”
Images courtesy of Tippsy Sake