Based in New York, TY KU — a division of Davos Brands — is a unique sake brand in every way possible. Its packaging is innovative and luxurious. Its flavors are traditional, yet TY KU also serves up infused flavors. It was the first sake to have a television campaign in the United States. TY KU also has its ties to yoga.
Co-founders Kirk Spahn and Trenton Ulicny developed TY-KU while attending graduate school at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, which many folks know as “SIPA.” TY-KU was initially created in 2004 as a way for athletes to indulge while still maintaining their health. Since then a number of notable celebrities have come on-board as investors in TY KU, including Ne-Yo, Todd English, Brian Vickers, Dhani Jones, Cee Lo Green, Patti Stanger, and Perez Hilton.
Downtown caught up with Adrian Molina, Senior Brand Manager at Davos Brands, who has been on the TY KU team since 2010. Beyond its official website, TY KU can also be followed on Twitter and Facebook.
Where did the idea for a line of flavored sakes come from?
Adrian Molina: I accidently spilled some sake in a ZICO Coconut Water and we thought why not!? (laughs) Actually, TY KU’s infusion line stems from the brand’s mission to demystify Sake and make it more approachable to casual consumers in the U.S. People are aware of sake from Japanese restaurants, but a majority of those casual consumers would not know the difference between a Junmai or Honjozo style of sake. With that comes infused sake flavors that consumers can mentally associate a flavor with. Our Cucumber-Infused Junmai Sake has the nose of the grocery aisle of a Whole Foods, it is quite pleasant.
Was it the plan to make a low-calorie product? Or did that happen naturally?
AM: Sake is traditionally low in calories — 43 to 45 calories per 1.5 oz — given its all natural ingredients and modest ABV content (12%-15%). This has opened the door for sake as a cocktail base to make cocktails that clock in under 100 calories. Added bonus/pro tip: sake is perfect for summer brunch since the low ABV will have you making it to dinner time and beyond.
Also unique about the TY KU brand is the stylish packaging. Does the shape of the bottle affect its contents in any way?
AM: Not at all. The packaging was a strategic decision in making sake more approachable. A majority of sake you will see at a liquor store are typically shaped like wine bottles and covered in Japanese writing, but we wanted to stand out a little. It definitely has given our brand awareness in comparison but there are some detractors whom do not see the packaging as traditional, and that’s fine because the juice inside is 100% from Japan and one of the finest sake breweries. Spoiler Alert, though: TY KU is launching new packaging in 2017 that is sure to perpetuate our innovation efforts.
Do you find that most TY KU customers are big fans of sake? Or are they people that transitioned over because of the flavors?
AM: I consider our infusions the “gateway” to sake. Our TY KU Coconut Nigori and TY KU Cucumber Junmai have converted so many people who have had bad experiences with “sake bombs” and “hot sake.” Having those flavor associations help tremendously with consumer trial. It’s like a California roll for the novice sushi consumer.
Did you ever worry about sake loyalists looking down at your brand?
AM: There are those purists who are not fans of our modern packaging and marketing, but we believe in building the sake category as a whole and that all ships would rise with the tide. I’m sure if sake becomes as widely-distributed and available as white wines, those purists wouldn’t mind being able to find their favorite product at their local stores more easily.
Do you have a favorite of the TY KU flavors?
AM: My palate is more on the dry side, so our Junmai Ginjo — TY KU Sake Black — is my personal favorite.
Are there plans to offer other flavors in the future?
AM: We are researching trends and identifying what would work well with sake. It has to be a good fit within the flavor profiles of traditional Sake, so we are definitely not trying to release a “cotton candy” flavored Sake.
I understand that you’re a New York company, but that your products are made in Japan. Is making sake not an option in the United States?
AM: It is, in fact a lot of sake that is sold in the U.S. is made in the U.S. When it comes to sake, we wanted to be authentic to the craft. We work with the five generation family-owned Umenoyado Brewery in Nara, Japan, which is consider the birthplace of sake.
Do you have a favorite bar in Manhattan near your office?
AM: Well, the bar IN my office has been quite good to me, even though I am the worst tipper. (laughs) Aside from that I do love TAO — both locations — and multiple hole-in-the-wall locations that offer some unique crowds.
Is there a TY KU accomplishment you’re most proud of?
AM: Would have to say how we have established a lot of “firsts” within the sake category. We were the first sake brand to have a television ad campaign in the U.S. and we were also the very first alcoholic beverage to be featured in Yoga Journal Magazine with our Après Yoga campaign initiative.
When not busy with TY KU responsibilities, how do you like to spend your free time?
AM: I am big into yoga and a self-proclaimed “brogi,” the balance of yoga and working in the alcohol industry is what keeps me young. Other than that, typical “millennial” things and always working on the perfect acoustic cover of “Trap Queen”…Almost there!
Finally, Adrian, any last words for the kids?
AM: Keep your hands in the dirt but your head to the sky. Dream big but stay rooted and never be “too good” for grunt work or stuff that may be beneath you. Nothing has ever grown from the sky, so it’s best to feel it growing from the ground by keeping humble there.