Umami Mart co-owners Yoko Kumano and Kayoko Akabori were thrilled when a Japanese single malt was awarded the “World Whiskey of the Year” a little more than three years ago — an unprecedented feat.
Beating out its Scottish rivals, the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was noted for its “nose of exquisite boldness and finish of ‘light, teasing spice.’”
Suddenly, liquor connoisseurs — including those in the San Francisco Bay Area — were clamoring for Japanese whisky (Note, the Irish and Americans spell it “whiskey,” the Japanese and Scots spell the spirit without the e).
Trouble was, Umami Mart, their Japanese drink and barware shop in Old Oakland, couldn’t sell hard liquor. “Everyday someone would call and ask if we had whisky,” Akabori said. “We knew people wanted Japanese whisky, but we couldn’t sell it without a special license.”
That finally changed last month, when Umami Mart got the license that allowed the shop to add bottles of Japanese whisky and shochu to its shelves. Ranging in price from $55 to $450 a bottle, Umami Mart’s selection includes Suntory Toki, a blend that comes from the same distillery that produced the award-winning Yamazaki Single Malt, and Tori Kai Shochu, reportedly a favorite of Japan’s Princess Masako. Customers can now pick up everything they need, for instance, to mix and serve a Manhattan cocktail, from the whisky to the cherries to the glassware.
“It’s always been a dream for us to connect the dots, to be a one-stop shop,” Akabori said.
Kumano and Akabori opened Umami Mart in Oakland more than five years ago. From the beginning, they wanted to include Japanese spirits.
Friends from high school in Cupertino, Kumano and Akabori started a blog called Umami Mart in 2007. Kumano was living in Tokyo at the time, and Akabori in New York. The blog, dedicated to the Japanese food and drink that they both love, drew a following. When they moved to the East Bay, they opened the retail store, selling Japanese tea, snacks, cooking ingredients, kitchen tools and drinkware.
In 2014, they obtained a license to sell beer and sake. Adding Japanese beer and sake to its shelves elevated the store: Monthly sales doubled compared to the previous year, and with what they believe is the largest selection of Japanese craft beer in the San Francisco Bay Area — some 60 varieties, including the popular Hitachino Nest, Coedo, Yoho and Echigo brands — Umami Mart draws customers from all around the region who make special trips to Old Oakland.
The hard liquor license was more challenging to acquire. Last year, Kumano and Akabori reached out to Oakland city officials, outlining the community they had built around their store and their vision for Umami Mart. The shop hosts monthly food and drink events for its customers, and partners with restaurants and organizations to hold sake and shochu tastings.
Oakland’s food and drink scene has also flourished in the five years since the store opened, with Umami Mart playing a part. Being able to sell Japanese liquors made sense, they said. The city finally agreed.
In the future, Kumano and Akabori also hope to add a tasting room to the store, offering customers the chance to taste its beer and liquor and learn about their origins. Both Kumano and Akabori have an extensive background in Japanese beverages: Kumano once worked at Takara Sake brewery in Berkeley and passed a lengthy test to become a certified sake specialist. Akabori, a former bartender, is certified as a shochu adviser.
Both have traveled to several of the distilleries in Japan that produce the bottles sold in their store. A few years ago, they toured the Chichibu Distillery, a small distillery in Saitama prefecture with a cult following for its whiskies, like Ichiro’s Malt and Grain. And they marveled at Satsuma Shuzo’s agriculture lab that tested the optimal conditions to harvest sweet potatoes used as a base for its Shiranami Sweet Potato Shochu. “Nothing is by chance,” Kumano said about the shochu-making process. “Everything is calculated.”
That a Japanese single malt won the best whisky award confirmed what Kumano and Akabori already knew to be true: Japan knows how to make whisky. Whisky has been made and consumed in Japan since the 1920s, with its master distillers apprenticing in Scotland and borrowing many of the same techniques and equipment. It just took the rest of the world a little longer to recognize it.
Today there’s so much demand for Japanese whisky that the distilleries can’t ship bottles fast enough.
As expected, much of the demand so far is for Umami Mart’s new selection of Japanese whisky, said Kumano and Akabori. But with their newly-acquired license, they also hope to introduce shochu more widely.
Still waiting to be discovered by drink enthusiasts outside of Japan, shochu is a traditional Japanese liquor that is distilled most often from sweet potato, barley or rice. The beauty of shochu is that it can easily be paired with almost any kind of food, from grilled vegetables to burgers, said Kumano. A popular cocktail in Japan is the oolong-hai, or shochu ice tea, a mix of oolong tea and shochu.
“We’re trying to bring awareness to shochu,” said Akabori. “No one knew three years ago that Japan made whisky. Shochu will take time. It’s the next Japanese whisky.”