Let’s Talk About Price

Before I begin, I’d like to mention the recent flooding disaster in Western Japan. I live in the midst of one of the worst floods to hit Japan in decades. My family and I are safe and, mostly, unaffected, but the communities around us have been devastated. Dozens of lives have been lost, thousands of homes destroyed, and lives thrown into chaos. I want everyone reading this to take a moment and think if there is anything you might be able to do for those in need.

And yet, life does go on. Work must be done, children must be sent off to school, and sake must be drunk.

Today I’m taking a break from regular posts about tasting and events, though I do have some of those coming up, to post my thoughts about an idea brought up in the article What is Value for Money in Sake article on the excellent Taste Translation blog.

I encourage you to go read the article because it brings up some very interesting ideas about sake pricing, especially in relation to wine. Arline, the author, mentions that to her, sake seems very reasonably priced in comparison to wine. Here’s a quote:

Are those guideline prices per class fair? If you think about a top of the line wine, I’d expect to pay a lot more. JPY 4000 for 1.8 L of junmai daiginjō converts into about JPY 2000 for 720 ml, to compare to a 750 ml bottle of wine. That’s just EUR 15.50, or USD 18.10, or GBP 13.60. I paid twice that in Paris for a wine I hoped was merely better than average and okay to bring to lunch at a friend’s house. I’d be prepared to pay a lot more for something that had a good reputation, based on what I’ve seen my parents and friends pay.

This actually very directly gets to a point that, frankly, bothers me. I have seen other comments from people in Europe and America that to them, Sake is “too cheap.” They expect to pay more for a premium product, and that sake brewers are thus underpricing their products.

This seems…I don’t want to say ridiculous, but very very hard to understand.

Let me just begin by saying, sake itself has long been a “working class” drink. Long long ago it was a rare treat, reserved for holy ceremonies and the upper crust, but since at least the Edo period it was a drink of workers and warriors. In the Showa era, there was some effort to differentiate good “expensive” sake from cheap rotgut with a rudimentary classification system, but it wasn’t until very recently that the tokutei meishu classifications became indications of “premium” sake. And now, when sales are dropping as the traditional market ages, and younger people rebel against traditional alcohol culture, makers are more and more relying on that premium feeling to sell to a new market.

Note here that I am not using premium to mean good, or high quality. Here, premium is a social construct, one that is related to class and status. Because that’s what this comes down to. Daiginjo is genuinely more expensive than honjozo because it is harder to make, but in many cases is MUCH more expensive because makers are intentionally trying to create a “premium feeling” to appeal to people who believe you need to pay a lot to get good stuff.

Let us consider Dassai. Dassai has long been a hunter after premium feeling. Their first big success came after being served in First Class by ANA airlines. They have relentlessly pursued customers in France and New York, and have recently opened an exclusive shop in Ginza. At the same time, they have pioneered automation and computer controlled production methods…which SHOULD cut costs.

Dassai Oct 2017
From the Wayback Machine, as Dassai’s webstore is currently down.

Here we can see prices for Dassai as of January, 2018. A 720ml bottle of Dassai 23 is 5,400 yen. This is…pricey, but it is their big premium product. Now, a two bottle set of their Migaki “Beyond” is 37,800 which is…insane. That’s nearly US$150 a bottle, and they don’t even say what the mill rate is.

It is the marketing. It’s the premium feeling. It’s not the product, it’s the packaging.

Gokkyo Ginjo Genshu 2,600 yen; Honjozo Genshu 1,460; Junmai Genshu 1,420, Junmai Ginjo 1,460 yen. Yoshin Junmai Daiginjo 1,450 Yen; Chomonkyo Junmai Daiginjo 1,380 yen.

Here you see an array of 720ml bottles (By the way, if you read that article, the author surmises that 1.8l are the “normal” size. They may be a standard measure for bottlers, but for customers 720ml are much more common–1.8l is for shops). They are all local makers, all tokutei meishu. Notice that Gokkyo, an award winning brewer, offers Ginjo Genshu (undiluted!) for 2,600 yen. Chomonkyo offers a Junmai Daiginjo for 1,380. Is their Daiginjo of lower quality than Dassai? Of course not. Is the process faster, or easier, or less labor intensive? Not a chance. They don’t have Dassai’s facilities or capital.

What the difference is, is reputation. If Chomonkyo started charging 5000+ for a 720, no one would buy because they don’t have the premium feeling. They were never served in first class. They haven’t been shared by heads of state.

You’ve seen this one before. Ohmine Daiginjo (Mill Rate 38%): 1 Grain 5,508 Yen; 2 Grain (Mill Rate 48%) 3,888 Yen; 3 Grain (Mill Rate 58%) 2,160

Ohmine is another example of this. They only make junmai daiginjo sake. They sell it with labels designed by a multinational advertising company. They use social media and “hip” marketing to appeal to a young, sophisticated, wealthy market–and they do it all through premium feeling.

The price of these daiginjo makers with big international pushes, then, is clearly an appeal to people accustomed to paying more for “quality,” despite the fact that the price reflects much more the attitude of the consumer than anything inside the bottle.

And for a real kicker! Junmai ginjo/junmai daiginjo are often more expensive and in much higher demand than plain ginjo/daiginjo, despite the fact that oftentimes brewers and raters value the taste of the plain varieties more, because the brewer’s alcohol added brings out many elements of the ginjo flavor that might otherwise be lost.

But Junmai (pure rice!) sounds better to consumers, so it gets that premium feeling…and thus higher pricing.

It’s all in the head, in other words.

(I won’t even get into how 1.8l bottles can actually be cheaper than 720ml ones because they’re for professional use…)

So to come back to the point: pricing of “premium” products is in no way related to product quality, and by jacking up prices to appeal to those wanting that premium feeling, makers cut their product off from normal consumers. To me, being the populist that I am, that’s darned close to sinful.

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