In the first episode of Behind the Brand, we caught up with Michael Campion, the managing director of Four Fox Saké, to talk about his fascinating career and how he brings saké-drinking into fashion with his sleek liquor label. “Saké is so versatile that it can be drunk early or late, with or without food, straight, or in a low abv cocktail,” said Michael. Read on to discover more about this Hong Kong-based premium saké and why you should’t miss it.
Your career story is quite interesting. You were a professional footballer for 4 years! What was that experience like and what inspired you to move into the drinks business?
Football was my first love, so being offered the chance to play professionally was a childhood dream come true. The sport was and always will be a big part of my identity, but I didn’t actually make the decision to go all-in as an athlete until I was 27. Prior to that, I’d been on a much more traditional career path. Business school, investment management and corporate finance. Fortunately, I realised before it was too late, that I’d been funnelled down a path that wasn’t really of my choosing. I sold my flashy car, ditched the suit, and moved to Canada to learn how to snowboard. It was during my ‘quarter-life crisis’ that I discovered a love of wine and luckily for me, one of the great wine educators James Cluer MW lived in my neighbourhood. I threw myself into the books, learned from the best, and condensed hundreds of tastings into a matter of weeks (that is as much fun as it sounds btw). It’s been a part of my life ever since.
Considering that Four Fox Saké has only been in the market for 4 years, it is very impressive that the brand is now available from Australia to London. What have been some of the difficulties along the ride?
Thank you. For a startup founded by four friends in Hong Kong, we are obviously pleased that we’ve established a presence in so many overseas markets in a short space of time. It’s a badge of honour for us that many of Hong Kong’s top nightspots historically never listed saké on their menus, until Four Fox came along and showed saké in a different light. That being said, we are still very much in our infancy. There is a long race to run before we achieve our aim of being a universally recognised drinks brand. The cold hard truth remains…if you walk into a classy establishment in HK or NYC and ask every customer to name you 3 brands of saké, 95% of people would struggle to give you even one. Challenge them to name 3 whisky or gin brands however, and they’ll reel off 10 brand names.
In order to get to that level, a number of hurdles stand in our way. Firstly, the general public has a very limited understanding of what saké actually is – how to drink it and what the indicators of style and quality are. Therefore, a wider educational component exists alongside the core activity of brand-building. We are also fighting against deeply ingrained drinking habits and anytime you try to change consumer behaviour that’s extremely difficult. How do we change that ‘muscle memory’ when a person walks into a bar and reflexively orders a glass of wine, or a gin and tonic? How do we get drinkers to order a bottle of saké, or a Four Fox and Tonic instead? That’s the billion dollar question. We love a challenge though and if it were easy, somebody would have done it already.
And how important have personal relationships been to that success?
The big champagne and spirit brands have enormous marketing budgets that we can’t possibly compete with, so maximising the relationships and network of our employees and investors has been key. It sounds trite and painstakingly obvious to say it, but good relationships are so important to success in life and in business. The drinks business is not unique in being a people business, first and foremost.
Having said all that, if the product doesn’t live up to it’s promise, then it’s all for nothing. The product has to deliver. Even after four years, I still get a kick out of seeing people’s faces light up when they drink our saké for the first time. People can feel whether or not you’re passionate about the product you’re selling and that energy is infectious. It’s difficult to fake that kind of enthusiasm.
How would you describe the taste of this premium saké compared to more well-known liquors like Scotch and Vodka, to those who have not tried saké before?
When creating Four Fox Saké, that’s exactly the consumer we had in mind; somebody who had never tried saké before. Or at least, someone who only ever had brief encounters with it in Japanese restaurants. So we designed it to be immensely easy drinking, very soft and light. It’s not intensely perfumed or sweet, so it can be drunk easily without food. We wanted a flavour profile that was very approachable, that you could fall in love with instantly.
There is a widespread misconception that saké is quite alcoholic and astringent, and maybe that’s because a lot of people’s first experience is that of cheap, warm ‘Futsushu’ (table saké). The reality is that most premium saké is best served cold, and is typically 15-16% abv, which means it’s an ideal drink for hot HK summers. It is also far kinder on the liver than whisky or vodka. Not that I have anything against hard spirits, they each have their place in my drinking repertoire. But saké is so versatile that it can be drunk early or late, with or without food, straight, or in a low abv cocktail.
What food is it best paired with in your opinion?
Given that Four Fox is a Niigata style saké, quite light, dry, and soft, it naturally pairs very well with sashimi. What surprises most people is that saké is so much more versatile than that. More and more chefs and sommeliers are realising saké’s amazing potential for matching western cuisine. The umami in saké really helps enhance the richness of meat dishes, and it’s far less acidic than wine, so it doesn’t ‘fight’ with food in the same way that wine does. I personally love drinking saké with hard cheeses and cold cuts, and I know a number of top sommeliers who swear that nothing matches a cheeseburger better than saké!
The LED light definitely steals the show at parties. How did you come up with the idea?
We wanted to create a bottle that was visually stunning; something that would steal glances from nearby tables and inspire people to get their phones out and take a picture. Which it totally does. The LED just adds that extra bit of theatre and drama to the whole drinking experience. Some traditionalists don’t like it, but drinking saké is a social activity, it should be fun!
With such a modern design, how important do you think visual presentation / photography is nowadays in terms of promoting new concepts in the F&B industry?
People buy (and eat) with their eyes first. If you fail to capture their attention visually, then you’re unlikely to inspire a purchase, whatever it is that you’re selling. If you actually take the time to observe someone checking social media on their phone, you’ll notice just how quickly they scroll. Most people’s attention spans are incredibly fleeting, so having beautiful imagery is vital for capturing attention and getting people to slow that scroll. Stunning photography is no longer optional, it’s a pre-requisite.
Check out Four Fox Saké and where you can try it below.