Seattle pair put sake on local map

Outlet to taste, buy aims to create 'Japanese oasis' with aim of demystifying the traditional brew

by Kris Kosaka

Japan abounds with foreigners attracted by its cultural opportunities, who live in the country and eventually make a livelihood by specializing in attributes the country has to offer. Scattered across the world, their counterparts reside in towns in Europe or America, those who, after spending time in Japan, try to bring something of the country back with them to their native lands.

One such person is Johnnie Stroud, who together with his Japanese wife, Taiko, started Sake Nomi, a premium sake shop and tasting bar, in Seattle.

“Sake Nomi’s purpose is to demystify sake, to make it not so scary and foreign to people. We also wanted to expose people in Seattle to traditional Japanese culture,” Stroud says. The interior of the shop echoes that of a traditional sake brewery with understated elegance, and many customers compliment the couple on their successful rendering of “a piece of Japan.”

Stroud admits it was their intention to create “a Japanese oasis” in their new home on the West Coast.

They choose Seattle “because it was half-way between my hometown in Michigan and Taiko’s in Japan.” It was important to both of them to keep a connection to Japan, even if they live in the United States.

Stroud felt at home in Japan immediately after he first arrived in 1988. After graduating from Kalamazoo College in Michigan in 1987, Stroud decided to travel before settling on a career path. He landed an opportunity to teach English in Japan, as a direct employee of the board of education of the town of Shiwa, Iwate Prefecture.

Promptly welcomed, Stroud was keen to learn about Japan. “I think I was lucky I landed in Iwate for a number of reasons. There had not been that many Americans in that region by the time I arrived, and being a small town, people were pretty friendly and saw that I was eager to learn and try different things. They were willing to help me,” he recalls.

And living in the area that has a number of sake breweries, “I was exposed to some great sake right off the bat. Of course, I didn’t know at that time about different grades or quality, any of the technical things about sake, but I knew that I enjoyed it.”

Stroud’s enjoyment of sake led to an enjoyment of Japan in general, and his two-year contract was extended to three. Even after returning to Michigan in 1991, “I went back to America with the intention of finding some kind of Japan-related work, but at that time there was not a whole lot going on in the Midwest. I made the decision to go back to Japan.”

Stroud attended the 1991 Career Forum in Boston and landed a job with a company based in Yokohama. “At that point, my Japanese was good enough that I could do translations of user manuals and sales pamphlets; most of my work was related to international sales.”

Stroud was introduced to Taiko in 1994 in Yokohama, and 364 days after their first meeting, the two married in a traditional ceremony in her hometown in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Their Shinto wedding included the customary imbibing of sake: “Some friends had been coaching me before the wedding on how to do the ceremonial drink, the three sips, but when the big day happened, I was OK, but Taiko was so nervous, she just forgot everything and downed the whole cup in an ikkinomi (one breath) gulp.”

Their married life thus being blessed by sake, the couple soon discussed plans to relocate. A friend introduced them to the wonders of Seattle, so they chose the city as their midway point. Taiko and Johnnie carried a bit of Japan with them, hoping to find a job to somehow connect them to the country.

“When we came back in 1996, we were looking for Japan-related opportunities in Seattle; at one point, I was exporting used clothing to Japan, Levi’s and T-shirts.” Although the importing business proved profitable — after working at a few different companies, Stroud opened his own small business — Taiko and Johnnie frequently talked about what they could bring back from Japan to share in Seattle.

After considering several options, “we hit upon the idea of sake because of all the visitors we had from Japan, and we always took them out and exposed them to the local beers,” he recalls.

“Seattle at that time, the late 1990s and the early 2000s, was a center for the micro-beer movement in America, so there were plenty of small breweries operating. Our Japanese friends were always so excited to find out there were other beers than Budweiser in America,” he says. Almost 10 years had passed since they left Japan, but of course, the Strouds had been drinking sake themselves in America, to welcome their twin daughters, Jasmine and Sasha in 1999, for New Years or during big Japanese dinners.

Ushering in the New Year of 2005, they seriously discussed opening a sake tasting bar and shop. “We had good experiences, going to local wine shops where people explained things, let us taste a bit. It seemed like every time we tasted something, we bought it.”

To make any dream a reality requires hard work, and they dug in together. The Strouds spent about 18 months becoming familiar with sake and the business end in America. Stroud capped his sake education in 2006 by flying back to Japan to attend the five-day Sake Professional Course in Japan by John Gauntner, the leading non-Japanese expert on nihonshu. Taiko designed the shop’s interior and studied online resources on sake in Japanese.

Sake Nomi opened in 2007, and the Strouds soon realized their main work was in education: “Sake is still very closely related to Japanese food, in America in general and Seattle specifically. A lot of people, when they come to our place for the first time, they expect us to be a sushi bar, because they’ve never had one without the other. Even though all our signs or advertisements clearly say, ‘Premium sake shop and tasting bar,’ with no mention of food, I still get phone calls from people hoping to make dinner reservations.”

Luckily, Seattle has a rich tradition of appreciating Japanese food and culture. Stroud believes it is just a matter of time before sake becomes a drink enjoyed for its own rich complexities, and not merely as a spirit to complement Japanese cuisine. “Once people start experimenting with sake more, start pairing it with Western food, the demand here will really take off. Once Western restaurants start putting sake on their regular menus and their wine lists, things will change.”

To encourage that change, Sake Nomi offers a variety of classes and seminars. “We host different events, we have brewers come from Japan, we show videos of the sake-making process. There is a variety of classes, from Sake 101, which covers the basics, to a sake Japanese class, which teaches folks useful Japanese phrases, when speaking about sake.”

Sake Nomi shows Japanese movies and even runs a “fantasy sumo tournament,” watching the action on Japanese TV. In addition to the regular offerings and an online shop that sells a variety of sake goods, including books, original sake cups from a Japanese artist living in Seattle, and T-shirts and hats, Sake Nomi also hosts the Seattle Sake Matsuri. Entering its third year, the festival invites over 14 breweries from Japan with 40 different kinds of sake to tempt your palate and introduce Americans to the wonderful variety within sake.

Sake Nomi just celebrated its third anniversary, and Stroud has already noticed changes in the American sake world: “People are more aware of sake, they’ve had some exposure to better sake . . . or the most part, we still see a lot of people who have only tried house sake served very hot, but really, the most important thing we do is education, and the best way for us to educate others is to let great sake do the talking.”

They hope to expand their reach of education, starting a sake shop online; they are also looking into expanding or franchising the shop. “We definitely want to move more into consulting with restaurants, helping them put together a good sake menu, training their staff.”

Stroud believes in spreading the word about premium sake, and in doing so, keeps himself and Taiko connected to Japan, one sip at a time.

For more information, see www.sakenomi.us