Sake Nomi specializes in premium sake from small Japanese breweries. Owners Johnnie and Taiko Stroud operate a combination retail store and bar in Pioneer Square.

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When Zack Oakes discovered Sake Nomi in Pioneer Square, he knew the alcoholic beverage sake only from Japanese restaurants where it is often served hot.

“But real sake has to be consumed slightly chilled so you can taste the full flavor,” says the 28-year-old Oakes, a tech consultant specializing in networking for a Ballard company.

Since June, Oakes has been coming Thursdays after work with colleagues and friends to the tasting bar at Sake Nomi, one of the few U.S. retail stores specializing in sake. “This place has atmosphere and I would never have thought that the world of sake is so deep and wide.”

Bringing this world to Americans is the business idea of Johnnie and Taiko Stroud, who opened Sake Nomi in June 2007.

Johnnie Stroud is originally from Michigan. While working as an English teacher in Japan, he learned the country’s language.

Later, while working in Japan as a translator at the electronics manufacturer Amano, he met his future wife, who worked in the import/export division of the major Japanese trading corporation Itochu.

The couple married and in 1996 moved to Seattle.

“We realized that it was very difficult to buy good sake in Seattle. That’s how our business idea was born,” says Johnnie Stroud.

The name “Sake Nomi” has a double meaning. “Nomi” means “only” in Japanese. “But at the same time ‘Sake Nomi’ is a slang expression for drunkard,” explains a smiling Stroud. “Of course, we prefer the translation ‘drinking enthusiast.’ “

Sake Nomi specializes in premium sake from small Japanese breweries. “There are big companies with mass production that dominate the market in Japan. But with sake, it’s kind of like in the beer business: The quality of the microbreweries is generally much higher,” says Stroud.

“Our dream is that someday sake could become as popular in the U.S. as sushi.”

To that end, the couple focus on educating customers. “But we do it with humor, because there are some popular misconceptions about sake,” Stroud says.

One of them is that the beverage should be consumed hot. “It’s an understandable misconception, since this is how sake is primarily served in Japanese restaurants. But there’s much folklore to that. In fact the beverage should be consumed in the temperatures of white wine,” Stroud says.

Another popular misconception is that sake should be slammed like whiskey, he says. “I suppose people get the idea because sake is usually served in small shot glasses. Also, this may come from the fact that sake usually has about 15 percent alcohol — but it should be enjoyed slowly.”

The shop offers about 160 different sakes, with bottles coming in three different sizes, costing between $6 and $250. At the tasting bar, customers can try eight different sakes with the menu changing every week and a glass or a cup between $8 and $20.

This part of the business has become surprisingly important. “First we thought we could generate maybe like 80 percent of the income by selling bottles and 20 percent by maintaining the bar. But in fact the ratio has become like 60/40,” says Stroud.

“That’s part of the fun: Our business — with its combination of retail store and bar — is one of a kind in America, so we have to improvise as we go along.”

And the idea seems to work. The Strouds do not talk about revenue or profit but said their business has grown about 30 percent from last summer to this summer.

Taiko Stroud works at a Japanese import/export company in Seattle but soon both would like to work full time in their shop and tasting bar. They have no other employees. “A lot is about just getting the word out because there are still so many Americans who have never heard of sake,” says Johnnie Stroud.

In Japan, the beverage dominated the alcohol market until the 1960s. But with the rise of the Western lifestyle there, even there beer and wine became more popular.

Today sake is coming back and the Strouds want to use that trend to make the beverage more popular in America. According to the Japanese Finance Ministry, sake exports to the U.S. reached about 1 million gallons in 2007 from about 360,000 gallons in 1998.

John Gauntner, author of several books about sake, says sales have suffered in Japan because sake brewers never developed sufficient marketing skills. “Most brewers have small businesses in rural areas of Japan. They were just overwhelmed by the success of beer and wine,” says Gauntner.

Traditionally sake brewers differentiate among five flavors: sweetness, bitterness, dryness, astringency and tartness. The way those flavors are balanced within a sake is one of the defining aspects of its individual taste.

The beverage’s main ingredients are rice and water.

Gauntner says sake shouldn’t be compared to other alcoholic drinks. “Sake is often labeled as wine, due to the lack of carbonation and relatively high alcohol content, or as beer, since sake is also made of a grain and not fruit,” he said. “But sake making, the fermentation for example, differs enough from both making processes to justify a category all of its own.”

Johnnie Stroud says the sake he sells has no artificial ingredients. “Also, in our products you won’t find congeners — the byproducts of fermentation thought to cause headache. Premium sake is virtually hangover-free.”

The Strouds have developed sake seminars for beginners and offer events in their bar, such as showing movies related to Japan about twice a month.

The owners have a tavern license but no kitchen in their bar to serve food, so they offer rice crackers with the glass course. For special events they cater food like sushi.

The shop’s interior was inspired by sake breweries in rural Japan. Walls and pillars are painted white and brown to imitate wood. The bar, tables, seats and the shelves with the bottles are made from real wood. Little frames explain the making and the history of the beverage.

“So you can get the real sake-feeling here,” says Johnnie Stroud.

Georg Kern: 206-464-3283 or gkern@seattletimes.com