A local entrepreneur is hoping to turn more Washingtonians onto sake with her new online business that launched on June 18. DC Sake Cō, founded by Reiko Hirai, offers about 50 sake varieties that can be delivered to any address within the District. In the coming months, she hopes to build on the existing sake options and tack on Japanese craft beer and shōchū.
With her new venture, Hirai placed two bets. The first is that e-commerce will continue to be popular during the pandemic and beyond. She’s also rolling the dice that Washingtonians are more interested in drinking sake than they have been in the past. That might mean pairing the nuanced, often delicate, beverage made from fermented rice with more than Japanese cuisine.
Hirai encourages customers to treat it like wine. “Go to the grocery store and get some goat cheese or cheddar cheese and try it with sake,” she says. “Even pizza and other Italian food. You’ll be surprised, it’s a different kind of experience.” Don’t count out sake as a pairing for grilled and smoked meat. There’s a bottle for sale on the DC Sake Cō site specifically for cookouts—Shiokawa “Cowboy Yamahai” Junmai Kimoto Genshu. “The brewer made it to go with barbecue,” Hirai says.
Hirai is behind another local company she founded in 2006. Happi Enterprises, based in Arlington, puts on events tied to Japanese culture. She frequently teams up with the Embassy of Japan for sake tasting events. When Hirai first started out 15 years ago, sake was a tough sell.
“Back then I knew people were scared of getting headaches and had all of these college sake bomb memories,” she says. “It was very hard in the beginning, but gradually I started to see that people were getting more interested and curious about it.”
Then in 2016, D.C. became one of the few cities in the U.S. to have a Michelin guide. “I felt like there were so many people who were interested in food and excited to see different cuisines,” Hirai says. “The industry was booming, but sake somehow wasn’t coming in as much. I felt like sake was missing out.”
At first Hirai explored opening a retail shop. “But then I talked to real estate brokers and lawyers and calculated how many bottles I’d have to sell to keep it going,” she explains. “That’s when I realized D.C. is ready, but not that ready.”
An online store enables Hirai to reach customers without the overhead of a physical lease. While DC Sake Cō can currently only deliver to D.C. proper, Hirai says Virginia is next. Shipping is free if customers spend more than $80. Hirai is doing the deliveries herself. If people don’t know where to start, she says to keep an eye out for tasting sets she’s putting together to help educate imbibers about the wide variety of sake styles available.
“I don’t have any official training about sake, but I trained myself to the Ph.D. level of drinking it,” Hirai says. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I thought, ‘If someone is going to do it, I have to do it.’”