Vinegar is a staple when it comes to salad dressings and marinades and a whole bevy of food recipes. From apple cider and balsamic varieties to rice vinegars, the venerable distillation can be found in many kitchens. And now two local entrepreneurs have launched a line of vinegars that aim to introduce foodies to another way to enjoy vinegar: as a beverage.
In early 2012, Takako Shinjo and Judy Tan of Portland cofounded Genki-Su, a line of drinking vinegars that derive from traditional Japanese types dating back to the time of the samurai. In November 2012, Shinjo and Tan launched a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter which gave them the final push they needed to help get their product on store shelves. In short, their product went from concept to store shelves in under a year.
I had the chance to talk to Judi Tan to find out more about the Genki-Su line of drinking vinegars.
Ifanyi Bell: What is Genki-Su and why did you decide to start the company?
Judy Tan: Well, back in March I met Takako and she approached me about the idea and I was excited about it. I had started another company called tanQ …
IB: You mean the custom T-shirt company?
JT: Yes. We work with non-profits and design T-shirts and then sell them with 100 percent of the profit going to charity.
IB: Cool. So you have experience starting companies and so you guys connected.
JT: Yes, and Takako is originally from Okinawa and was familiar with drinking vinegars because it’s so common in Japan. Back in feudal times, samurai carried drinking vinegar as a way to cleanse and prepare themselves for battle. ‘Genki’ in Japanese means ‘energetic’ and ‘full of life’ and ‘Su’ is the word for ‘vinegar.’ At the time I was working as a graphic designer and I had a lot of ideas for some of the branding and we turned out to be a really great team.
IB: So you designed all the labels and the artwork — the watercolor elements and the packaging?
JT: Yeah, all of that is art work that I created.
IB: So you guys met in March, talked about the idea, and then had a product on shelves in December? I’m no business expert, but I’d say that has to be some kind of record.
JT: I guess it was kind of fast. But like I said, Takako was already so familiar with drinking vinegar and had a recipe that came from her family based on only four natural ingredients.
IB: You guys currently offer three different flavors. Why did you choose those?
JT: Yes, we have three flavors: Shiso, which is a kind of Japanese basil. We also have Yuzu-Citron. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit. The flavors all come from typically Japanese ingredients. And Honey Ginger, which is the flavor that probably people are most familiar with, so people here really find that flavor easy to enjoy.
IB: Drinking vinegar is a known quantity in Japan. What has been your biggest challenge in the business so far?
JT: By far the biggest challenge has been getting people here in the States to understand what it is. When people here think of vinegar, they don’t usually think of it as something you drink. So right now, we have it for sale in local Japanese stores like Uwajimaya and markets that sell Japanese foods. But we are definitely looking to get them on the shelves at places like Whole Foods and New Seasons.
IB: While we were researching the story, some of the staff here actually had the chance to sample the Honey Ginger flavor … We all liked it, but I thought it was a little strong. We just kind of took shots of it, though. Are there other ways that you recommend enjoying it?
JT: You drank it straight?
IB: Yeah. It was really good; you could completely taste the flavor. It was very good, just really, really strong. The taste, it stayed with me for the rest of the day.
JT: You know it’s concentrated, right?
IB: Are you not supposed to do that — take shots of it?
JT: No, we definitely don’t recommend enjoying it that way.
JT: There are at least 24 servings in each 12-ounce bottle! We recommend you dilute them by at least a 1:6 ratio.
IB: Well, it was still good.
JT: You can use sparkling water or tea or whatever your favorite beverage is. A lot of people use them in cocktails as mixers.
IB: Do you have any plans to release other flavors?
JT: Right now, we are working on another flavor. The Yuzu is really popular and tested well with a lot of people when we had a tasting party, so we’re developing a yuzu flavor without the citron. We’re going to call it ‘double yuzu.’
IB: Without the citron. I get it. That’s very clever.
JT: We like it.
IB: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with me and setting me straight with all this.
JT: No problem. Thank you. And remember to mix it in with something before you drink it!