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Foodist Media reports on a small bar in Tokyo that seems to be doing all the wrong things: offering what is traditionally seen as a “mismatch” – Japanese sake and Western food – to young people, who are reported to be turning away from sake in their droves. The popularity of this seemingly hopeless combination has netted them a monthly turnover of JPY 6 million, with an average per-customer spend of JPY 2,500.

The Nakano branch of Ao-Nisai is a small bar seating just 27 people, stocking 50-60 types of sake and serving food to enjoy with it. Foodist Media asked company president Ogura Douta about the secret of their success. (Reading his bio at the end of the article, turns out he’s from a town in the area where I lived when I first went to Japan!)

70% of Nakano Ao-Nisai’s clientele are in their late 20s or 30s, but the row of 1.8 litre bottles over the counter seats don’t give the impression of a bar for the younger crowd. Their policy is to offer an ever-changing lineup of sake by replacing each empty bottle with a different one from their extensive stock. Sake currently accounts for 60% of their drinks sales, and 27% of overall sales. It also makes up JPY 1.62 million of their monthly JPY 6 million turnover, which is due to their relatively high average per-customer spend.

Ogura comments that customer turnover is good, and that although their opening hours are currently restricted they can normally host four sittings. Most people drop in, have a quick drink, and go. The bar operates a time limit of 2.5 hours per customer, which makes higher-alcohol sake a better choice than beer. 

One of the bar’s selling points is its wide selection of sake. The traditional drink is often seen as having a harsh smell and taste, leading many to turn it down. To avoid this stereotype, Nakano Ao-Nisai makes it clear that they stock an extensive range and there’s sure to be one to suit you. Some of the terms they use are  smooth (角のない, without sharp points), soft (ふわっとした), refreshing (清々しい), lingering (余韻の長い), flowery (華やいだ), crisp (キレの良い), voluminous/viscous (ボリューム感のある), stimulating (刺激的な), full-bodied (コクのある), with substance (重厚な), mellow (芳醇な). Even if they can’t communicate the exact taste, they’re enough to give an impression of what the sake is like.

Staff help customers find a sake they’ll enjoy, and sell it in small quantities that encourages people to give it a try – instead of the usual 180 ml “cup” (1 go, 1合) they serve sizes starting from just 54 ml (3 shaku, 3勺). This allows people to taste without worrying that they’ll be left with a glass full of something they don’t like. The writer admits that he usually drinks beer and is put off by the smell of sake, but Ogura asks if he likes wine, particularly white wine, and serves him a sake that could be mistaken for it – fruity and without the characteristic aroma the writer associates with sake.

The article recaps the domestic demise of sake, from a peak of 1.7 million kilolitres in 1975 to just 1/3 of that figure in recent years. The main factor behind the decline is though to be a fall in sales of futsushu (table sake) grade products from big breweries in places like convenience stores. However, smaller more individual breweries seem to be doing well, showing that off the beaten track may be the way to go.

Ao-Nisai serves lots of Western-style dishes, such as taro and chestnut croquettes, and breaks with tradition by serving sake with non-traditional Japanese food. They pair dishes using cheese with sake that have a lactic or lactobacillic element, such as those made with the older kimoto brewing style.

Ogura also puts his success down to the personal element – staff are encouraged to be friendly with customers, for example toasting them. Overall, it doesn’t feel like a traditional sake bar. Many members of staff are former customers, and staff turnover is low. He hasn’t had to go to a recruitment company for nearly eight years. The staff talk to each other about sake and pairings, so they know who can help any given customer. So, sake + Western food + the personal touch seems to be a winning combination.