He’d like to help you chill out
Q. How did you develop such an interest in sake?
A. I’ve been loving wine and food for a long time, and I had read a lot about sake, because I like the history and the culture of Japan. I started off with hot sake and I hated it. It was so hot it was burning my eyes. I decided to give cold sake a chance, and after my first taste I fell in love with it. I found so much diversity in the flavor profiles. There are twice as many flavor components in sake as wine, so there is twice as much flavor potential, even though they’re more restrained. I love the beauty in the labels, the words, the names. They have terms for drinking sake in various conditions. There’s a term, yukimi-zake, drinking sake while watching the snow falling, which is appropriate for right now.
Q. What is sake, exactly? How many different types are there?
A. Sake is an alcohol made from rice. It’s not a wine or beer, although it shares characteristics with both. If you treat it when you’re tasting it more like a wine, you’re on good ground there. Most premium sake is best slightly chilled, and it’s got a wide range of flavors. There are sweet, dry, fruity, herbal, flowery, sparkling, and dessert sakes. There’s an incredible range of flavors that people don’t seem to realize. It’s not just a one dimensional drink. There are also different quality levels, depending on how much of the rice kernel is polished away. The center of the rice kernel is where the starches are, what you need to make sake. They polish away the outside of the rice kernel because you want to get to the center where the shinpaku, or “white heart’’ is. The more starches that get into the sake, not fats and proteins, the better the sake is. The highest level of quality is called daiginjo, where at least 50 percent of the rice kernel has been polished away.
Q. How does one become a Certified Sake Professional?
A. [Renowned sake expert] John Gaunter and the Sake Education Council, a nonprofit professional organization, run educational classes about sake. It’s a three-day intensive course where you taste 90-100 sakes, and if you pass the test at the end you become certified. There is a second level you can take, but you have to go to the Japan and tour the breweries and such. They’ve had about 12 classes so far, and less than 300 people have taken the course and passed the test.
Q. What do you think the general level of sake awareness is in this area?
A. Very low. Most consumers don’t know a lot, most wine stores don’t know a lot, even a lot of distributors only have basic knowledge. It’s still a field where a lot of education is needed. I think my services fit a gap that was needed in Boston. Most wine stores don’t carry a lot of sake, if any. I’m going to these stores trying to get them to bring in more sake, recommending what to bring in. Probably the best store right now is the Urban Grape in Chestnut Hill. They carry over 30 sakes. Most restaurants don’t carry it unless they’re an Asian restaurant. There’s a big opportunity here. Sake can go with a lot of food, not just Asian, from mushroom risotto to steak. It goes great with seafood, actually does better than white wine. It’s great with cheese. I recently did an article about how to pair sake with Thanksgiving dinner.
Q. Sake cocktails seem to have become more popular in the past year or two though, right?
A. I think that might be the inroad for sake to become more popular. It’s a less threatening way to have sake. And there’s less alcohol than vodka or rum. Myers + Chang are one of the biggies for sake cocktails right now. I’ve heard Umami in Brookline are doing good ones, although I haven’t been yet, and Q Restaurant in Chinatown. I was pretty happy with them.
Q. Do you need any type of special glasses if you want to serve it at home?
A. It’s traditional to serve in small cups, but that’s more social. There’s a tradition where you don’t ever pour your own cup. It’s a small cup, so you have to keep getting your cup poured by someone else and you have to mix and mingle. But drinking it out of a wine glass you can get the aromas and flavors and such. Treat it like wine at home and have it with dinner.
Interview was edited and condensed. Luke O’Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.