If you’re like me, your first taste of sake was probably a house sake (aka the only one on the menu); served warm and not particularly pleasant to drink. It was was likely futsu, a domestically produced product that’s typically served warm to mask the impurities of an inferior product, and perhaps not the best introduction to the traditional Japanese rice wine, of which there are many premium varieties to be enjoyed and appreciated. This is where sake sommeliers come in.
Like a wine sommelier, sake sommeliers help diners make decisions on the best beverage to pair with their meal. “The value of having sake sommeliers in our restaurants is to continue the education of both our staff and our guests about sake and sake culture,” said Alastair England, wine and sake director of Zuma operations in the United States (with locations in New York and Miami). “The sake sommelier’s job in modern izakaya restaurants has to be about education first and guiding guests through different expressions of sake for both novices and experienced sake drinkers.”
At Zuma restaurants in the U.S., England has curated a menu that not only pairs well with the restaurant’s high-end, meticulously crafted Japanese cuisine but “showcases breweries that have great history and great people behind their projects,” said England. Standout bottles include Masumi Arabashiri nama junmai ginjo; “an unpasteurized sake from one of the most famous and historical breweries in Japan,” explained England, who added that this sake is only available during the spring and summer. Also on the menu is Kokuryu “Ryu” Daiginjo sake, produced by a brewery in Fukui that was built in the early 1800s. “This elegant sake is the perfect expression of daiginjo sake,” said England, with notes of white flowers, black tea and nori.
Nancy Cushman, co-owner and founder of restaurant group Cushman Concepts (o ya, Covina, Roof at Park South, Hojoko), has an Advanced Sake Professional Certification and takes pride in having several sake experts at both o ya locations in NYC and Boston. “For me, it’s about helping our guests explore a new sake taste experience for the first time or even change their perception that it’s all hot sake and not that high-quality,” said Cushman. “New York is a very sake savvy market, so it’s fun to talk with guests about their preferences and help them navigate the menu to find something tried and true or something new.”
There’s something for everyone on o ya’s sake list, which showcases the depth and variety that exists in the beverage. There’s sake by the glass and bottle, and it’s organized by categories based on the degree to which the rice is polished down before the brewing process. “It ranges from light to heavier-bodied (for sake is still lighter than most wines), and from very clean and pure ‘like water’ rice flavors to complex fruit and layers,” explained Cushman.
For Cushman, who first fell in love with sake over 20 years ago during one of her first dates with her now-husband and business partner chef Tim Cushman, it’s an exciting time for sake in the United States. “I am happy to see that sake is now being accepted as another wine and it is indeed a wine, although the brewing process is different,” said Cushman. “Sake is now being studied by wine sommeliers which means it’s being accepted on a broader level.”
As sake continues to become more mainstream with the help of experts like Cushman and England who put in the all-important work of educating consumers on the beverage, the next step is to break this misconception that sake can only be enjoyed with Japanese food. “Sake is becoming more than just a beverage for Japanese cuisine and we, as sake sommeliers, are looking to have sake displayed in all aspects of restaurant culture,” said England.
“I think people are learning and experimenting so much more with sake now,” said Cushman. “I would put sake up to wine in just about any food challenge…[but] at the end of the day, it’s always about what you like and your own personal tastes. If it tastes good, drink it.”