Rice wine is actually a misnomer for sake. Though stateside the term is often applied for the sipper that comes hot or cold, it’s not a title any true disciple would apply. Because when it comes to the production, sake couldn’t be any further from wine.
The process is actually closer to beer, requiring a two-step “multiple parallel fermentation.” And since rice, unlike grapes, does not contain sugar, a mold called koji must be added to convert the starch to sugars. There are over 80 types of rice specially designed to make sake, which is produced from fermented rice, water, yeast and the koji. Though it plays an important role in the culinary traditions of Japan, sake consumption at home has decreased dramatically in the last few decades. As a result, a global marketing effort has turned the tide and last year America accounted for over a third of Japan’s exports of their national brew.
In 2010 the Sake School of America was founded to train sake sommeliers living in the burgeoning American market. The school is accredited by Sake Service Institute International, the largest organization of sake-sommelier certification in Japan. Currently there are less than 100 sake somms working on the East Coast. A few are based in New York and only two are on Long Island. The first was Jesse Matsuoka, general manager of Sen Restaurant in Sag Harbor.
Long Island Pulse: What was your introduction to sake?
Jesse Matsuoka: My father was a sumo wrestler. In the ceremonies after the matches, one of the special things they do is break a big cedar barrel of sake called a taru with a huge mallet. That was my first introduction. I was too young to drink it, but to see everyone surrounding the barrel, drinking and celebrating, that was really the start of my sake journey.
Pulse: What did it take to become certified as a sake sommelier?
Matsuoka: It wasn’t offered on the East Coast until two years ago and the second-level course was intense. They tested your knowledge of history, the science behind fermentation and even a blind-tasting portion where you discern the style of sake, what type of rice they use, then ultimately you name that sake and [describe] why you named it that…the sommelier certification is the culmination of all [my] time spent researching, tasting and educating. And because there are a lot of misconceptions about sake in the States, I want to impart that knowledge to our guests.
Pulse: What’s the biggest misconception about sake?
Matsuoka: That all sake is hot. Hot sake was the first sake to really hit this country and it was not of high quality. The same thing happened with wine…the challenge, for myself and my staff, is to guide our guests to their sake enlightenment…there’s a long-standing intimidation with sake…the bottles don’t have a lot of English on them, it’s hard to remember. So we try to simplify it. Many times we describe our sake in relation to other beverages, like with wine or beer…we have sakes that are sweet, dry, savory, spicy, floral, mushroom-y, earthy…we’re trying to turn the corner from intimidation to inspiration.
Pulse: Why do you like using sake in cocktails?
Matsuoka: It’s versatility, definitely. A lot of purists would say its blasphemy to use sake in cocktails, but what I’m trying to do is break down the layers of intimidation. Sake can balance many spirits well. For example, we carry a local sake made in Maine, Blue Current, that’s very smoky and I was inspired to make a whiskey cocktail with it, something like an Old Fashioned with sake and whiskey.
Pulse: What’s in it?
Matsuoka: Bulleit bourbon, the Blue Current Junmai Ginjo, Antica Formula bitters, agave nectar and garnished with a cherry and orange peel. Being smoky, it’s a great introduction of sake to a whiskey drinker. But it also lightens up a whiskey drink for a bigger market to enjoy. [The cocktail’s] name is Smokey Onsen, onsen being a Japanese hot spring bath.
Matsuoka’s Sake Primer
Some strategies I use to introduce sake would be to try [customers] on a Daiginjo, a highly refined grade of sake that is mostly light and fragrant, or a sake that is light in alcohol like Miyasaka Yawaraka Junmai. This sake is at 12% alcohol, which is on the light side for sake (usually around 16%).
White Wine Drinker
A favorite wine of mine, Gewürztraminer, [is] a fruit-forward semi-dry wine [that] could be related to Kikusui Funaguchi, an unpasteurized and undiluted sake.
I enjoy a good lager beer to go with a meal, [just] like how Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo, [is a] perfectly balanced sake of dryness, body and flavor, the best food-pairing [sake] for any meal.
After Dinner Dessert
There’s something euphoric about ending a meal on an ice wine or port, just like Hanna Tou, a chili-infused plum sake that hits all the spots: sweet, tart, spicy, decadent.
A selection of these sakes can be found at Wainscott Main Wine & Spirits, whose sake list Matsuoka helped build.