The sake-based hard seltzer Ysidro is a pandemic baby, born out of a dream inspired by a Zoom wine tasting, an open air walk allowed by social distancing rules, and that sense of why-the-hell-not that so many felt during Spring 2020’s end-of-days atmosphere. The wine tasting was hosted by Alex Dessouky, who’d just launched his Barrel Down Selections import company, and his Montecito neighbor, Monica Epstein, was one of many “attendees” staring at her computer screen and sipping along.
“The whole thing was very surreal,” she said of that early stay-at-home era. “That night, I had a dream that we were on Zoom and talking about a drink we had started.” She told her husband, Seth Epstein, about the vision, and then they ran into Dessouky while at Miramar Beach that same morning.
“We thought the world could end tomorrow,” recalled Dessouky, “so we figured we’d give it a shot.”
Though none had worked in the ready-to-drink canned beverage category, the trio brought a compelling skill set to the table: Dessouky had worked in wine brand development for two decades; Monica’s background was in lifestyle and fashion, creating items that were sold at major stores like Nordstrom; and Seth is the founder of Los York, a marketing and creative agency that’s run campaigns for Nike, Motorola, and many of the biggest brands in the world. Said Dessouky, “We thought we had all the pieces to the puzzle to try to do something together.”
The first step was market research. “Basically, we tasted a lot of uninspiring things in cans,” said Dessouky. “I wanted to create a product that I’d be happy to pour for friends who are winemakers or importers or work in restaurants. We just wanted the drink to be refreshing, have a bit of complexity, and be balanced in the front, middle, and end.”
Working at kitchen tables, they crafted their own formulas, trying neutral grain spirits, fermented cane sugar, and even bulk wine as potential bases. They all lacked character. Then came a chance encounter with a friend who grew up in Japan and was deep into sake. “That was our spark,” said Dessouky, who appreciated the traditional rice wine’s umami character. “It created the canvas that we started building these Santa Barbara-inspired flavors off of.”
Sake seltzer was also an untapped segment. “From a commercial standpoint, no one else was using sake,” he said of the booming hard seltzer market. “We knew that we could have something special.”
To keep their carbon footprint down, they connected with the oldest sake producer in the United States, using rice sourced from the Sacramento Delta to craft a proprietary Junmai Ginjo sake. For flavor, they quickly settled on a combination of zesty grapefruit — “it was the absolute clear winner,” said Monica of the many fruit trials — and sea salt, which brings body to the midpalate. Explained Dessouky, “We knew we landed on something that speaks to the sun and the mountains and the sea where we live, and has a nice flavor profile to boot.”
They picked the very Santa Barbara name Ysidro, which was a nod to the road where they all live but also to St. Isodore, who, they were happy to discover, is the patron saint of farming. The Epsteins’ branding acumen led to a stylish font and clean design set against a soft pink colorscape, to represent those “pink moment” sunsets. “The can stands out on the shelf,” said Monica. “The surface area isn’t dominated by a lot of information, and it really is quite beautiful.”
With Ventura Spirits handling production, Ysidro was launched in September 2021, only 16 months after they started the project in earnest. Distribution steadily spread from Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley to Los Angeles, Ojai, and SoCal relaxation zones, like Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, and Big Bear. There’s a monthly subscription option that offers a 10 percent discount, and Santa Barbara orders are still hand-delivered.
The popularity is warranted. In a world of lackluster and often gross hard seltzers, Ysidro tastes like it’s made from real ingredients, which are listed openly on the website, and the flavors truly recall a citrus grove awash in ocean spray. The sake shows itself with just enough warmth, but it’s really a background player, as the bright grapefruit and refreshing effervescence take centerstage. It’s great at the beach, on the golf course, in your backyard, and at restaurants, which are known to spruce up the sip by adding rocks and a twist.
Can we expect more flavors? “When the market demands more product, we’ll be ready to provide it,” said Dessouky.
Are they still the only sake-based seltzer out there? “We are aware of one other, but they are not using Junmai Ginjo,” he explained. “We’ve positioned ourselves as the sole premium sake-based drink out there.”