How to Import Japanese Sake: 9 Steps

Importing Japanese Sake from abroad can be a time-consuming procedure often associated with regulatory challenges and communication barriers. Depending on the importing country you will require an import license and sometimes even to distribute the sake. But how do I get started?

Written by

Sakura Sake Shop

October 3, 2022


min read

Importing Japanese Sake from abroad can be a time-consuming procedure often associated with regulatory challenges and communication barriers. Depending on the importing country you will require an import license and sometimes even to distribute the sake. But how do I get started? 

We have broken down the Japanese sake import process in a 9-step framework. We will go into detail about each of the following sake import steps:

  1. Identify your product
  2. Check the regulations
  3. Search for possible trading partners
  4. Inquiry a product list and proposal
  5. Simulate your business case
  6. Close the deal
  7. Import the sake bottles
  8. Market and sell the sake
  9. Measure your success

Identify your product

Clearly define your value proposition and be firm on your unique selling point. There are over 1000 sake breweries out there with wide over tens of thousands of products being offered in the domestic market. The international sake market might not have the same variety compared to the home market in Japan, but it is crucial to stay out of other sake retailers.

Sake 720ml bottles

Check the regulations

As a next step, it is mission critical for your success to research the rule work in your country or jurisdiction. Some countries might require alcohol importing and distributing licenses, which are most of the time fairly hard to acquire. In other countries, you might only need an officially registered corporate entity. Alcohol retailing licenses are one thing, but also each country has different rules around labeling, ingredients, and packaging.

Search for possible trading partners

After deciding what type of sake you want to import and sell, go on the hunt for good trading partners. It is important to find a counterpart that you can trust and build a long-lasting relationship that is beneficial for both parties. You can either work directly with the sake brewery or you can join forces with exporters specializing in exporting Japanese sake.

The advantage of working together with the brewery is the best price guarantee, but there are also a lot of disadvantages like communication issues or being limited to one brand at a time. In most cases, it makes sense to deal with sake exporters and not with the brewery directly.

This is for a couple of reasons: 

  • Access to a broad variety of sake bottles through one channel
  • Advise and support with the product selection and trade procedures
  • No communication issues with a very traditional industry like sake breweries

Inquiry a product list and proposal

Once you have found a suitable trading partner, reach out and inquire about a sake list with recommended sake bottles and pricing information. In order to receive the best proposal possible, it is better to directly state your preferred sake types, lot size, and other requirements upfront. This will help to facilitate a smooth trade for both parties without long back-and-forth communications. 

Some questions could be:

  • To whom and how do I sell the sake?
  • What sake types do I want to sell?
  • What size should the sake bottles be?
  • How many sake bottles or cases do I anticipate ordering?
Sake product list and tasting sheets

Simulate your business case

It is recommended to select a few sake bottles you would like to consider more closely from the sake product list and based on your selection run a few business case scenarios. For example, if you would buy 100 cases of 720 ml Daiginjo bottles at a certain price, you could sell the bottles at your margin and make a certain profit minus any sales & marketing costs and import costs. The simulations should include the cost of goods sold (i.e. export price), import-related costs, distribution costs, and marketing costs. This gives you a clear insight into your economics and should drive your decision process.

Close the deal

Try to negotiate with your selected sake. Depending on your order volume you might have some negation power, but for smaller orders do not expect any or many discounts as the margins on the Japanese side are already fairly low compared to spirits. Once you have agreed on the price and trading terms (most of the time EXW or FOB), you will receive either an invoice or you will need to issue an official order form. In general, it is common (especially for the first trade) that the order is processed when the amount is paid upfront and received.

Import the sake bottles

Now it is time for the actual export and import of your ordered sake. In the case of ex-works Japan, your trading partner will deliver the sake to a designated warehouse in Japan, where the sake cases are packaged and prepared for shipment. At the port, the logistic company or an agent takes care of the export procedures and sends the sake off to its destination. Most of the time this will happen in large shipping containers. Time-sensitive orders might be shipped as air freight. Once the sake has reached its destination port, the sake bottles and papers are checked by the local customs. When the sake is released from customs, the sake needs to be transported to your warehouse or retail storage.

Market and sell the sake

Now it is all about finding customers for your newly imported sake. Your distribution strategy should include participating in Japanese food & drinks events and holding tasting sessions with restaurants or individual customers. You can work together with other retailers or wholesalers to increase your total reach.

As sake is still unknown territory for most consumers, it is vital to create the right marketing materials that help the consumer’s understanding of sake and sake in general. Consider making detailed tasting sheets for each sake. A good sake tasting sheet should include: a bottle picture, sake category, basic brewery story, tasting notes, food pairing recommendations, recommended drinking temperature, and vessels.

Measure your success

It does not stop here. Building a long-lasting relationship with the Japanese trading partner and the brewery is essential to the success of your sake business. Visits to Japan or joint promotion activities like online tasting sessions with the brewmaster can be valuable. Continuously track and analyze your sales numbers and marketing efforts. Listen to your customers in tasting sessions or written reviews, take those insights back and adjust your next order accordingly. As some shipping routes take a couple of months it is crucial to reorder in advance, so that your customers do not experience empty shelves.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the top-selling sake and why?
  • What sales and marketing activities were most effective to promote sake?
  • What other sake types are requested by my customers?

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