What’s in a name? A lot, when it comes to sake, and most of it you might not even be able to utter (or remember), because it’s in Japanese. But that’s all changing thanks to Marco Destefanis who, with his brand Hiro (HiroSake.com), is putting a new label on sake, guaranteeing the American consumer can pronounce it and request it with ease. “It’s hard to love someone if you don’t speak the same language,” Destefanis says with a laugh.
A Brit-alian who was working for liquor company Diageo in Italy, Destefanis was assigned to develop the Jose Cuervo brand in that market. He was then recruited to join Cuervo corporate in London and to grow the business in Europe and Asia. He frequently traveled to Japan to promote tequila, and it was there he became familiar with sake.
“American consumers love sake … even though there is no clear branding,” Destefanis says. “If you picture sake—beautiful bottles, but they are written in a foreign language and [oftentimes in calligraphy]—it’s hard for consumers to remember a brand. We live in a time and age where brands are important. [This] wasn’t true for sake.”
With the help of some partners seven years ago, Destefanis created Hiro, a product that would be marketable in the U.S., and they financed it with their own money.
Last year, Hiro was named Best of Nation by the San Francisco International Wine Competition and received a 95-point distinction. Currently distributed in 26 states, Hiro recently launched in Mexico.
As much as the masculine, familiar tone of the name has been part of its success, Destefanis says the quality of the product comes a close second. It’s made in Niigata in Japan’s northwest agricultural region by Taiyo Suzo, a brewery that has been producing sake since 1635 and is still owned by the same family.
Hiro comes in two varieties: Junmai and the ultra-premium Junmai Ginjo. The same way the best tequilas are made from 100 percent blue Weber agave, premium sake is junmai—where 100 percent of the alcohol comes from the fermentation of rice with no added distillate.
Thus far, Las Vegas has been extremely receptive to Hiro. “The cocktail application is what is driving the growth of sake, [and it] is taxed like wine and therefore you don’t need a full liquor license,” Destefanis says. “Premium products tend to do well in Vegas. People come [here] to have a good time, [not] to save money.”