When I heard that the only sake professional course was now being offered in the United States, I knew exactly what I wanted for my 30th Birthday. John Gauntner, the sultan of sake, teaches this prestigious sake course and I was very excited to have been a part of it. For 5 full days we listened to lectures about sake and had two long tastings every day drinking about 50 sakes in total. This was definitely a highlight in my sake education. Most attendees were in the restaurant and beverage industries and this was to supplement their careers in this area, but there were a few like me that took the class for the love of it. I have to admit that it made me ask myself what the next step is for me in the sake world.
If you’ve never been to a meetup before, it’s an online community where you sign up for groups you re interested in who meet up in real life, often at no cost. I have joined meetups for dance classes, conversational french, crafts, spades, different aspects of web development, but not before I joined my first meetup for Sake Enthusiasts.
The first time I met with the Sake Enthusiasts Meetup it was a byob to a restaurant called Soy, which is now one of my most frequented restaurants where they know my name and my regular order. I don’t remember what I brought exactly but having recently become intimately familiar with the Union Square Wine sake catalog, the sakes the others brought seemed foreign to me. I seem to remember first learning about prestige sake and jizake this night. Prestige sake is a sake distributor that specializes in traditional sake brewers who maintain the culture and tradition of Japanese sake. All of their sakes have a round sticker right on the front, letting you know that it is a quality traditional brewer and furthering the Prestige brand. It worked. Jizake also brands a sticker and means that it is made by a small traditional brewery. What the difference between the two is? Im not completely sure. Prestige is a distributor and could source jizake sakes, but would a bottle have both stickers? I guess a prestige sake is always a jizake and jizake is a sake that is also made by a small traditional brewery but just not distributed by prestige. I could stand to do some more research on this topic.
But what does it mean for a brewery to be traditional? Well, sake has been around for a couple of thousand years and in the last 50 years there has been a lot of change. All breweries seem to make a junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo from different milling rates of the rice which is still relatively new, but the methods they use distinguish them from being traditional or modern. I suppose a traditional brewery would not add extra alcohol or add lactic acid to the mixture.
I wanted to live at Sakagura and just taste and learn all there was to know about sake, but I quickly figured out that wasnt economical. So what I did next was very me. I made a list of every wine store in the phone book that might have sake based on the name, size, or proximity to chinatown or korea town. I learned pretty quickly that most places only had the same 4 sakes on the shelf. But when I got to Union Square Wine, not only did they have a diverse selection but the manager Jesse Salazar was very enthusiastic to meet another enthusiast. Little did I know that he would be instrumental in my sake education.
I asked if he had the Ichinokura Himezen I had tasted at Sakagura. He didnt but he was happy to order it for me as well as another sake of a similar flavor profile. From that point on Union Square Wine was my store and Jesse hooked me up with discounts on sake and classes their distributor World Sake Imports would organize at the store and through the years we have been to many events in and out of the store and have had dinner as friends, but always with sake. Jesse has way more experience than me with wine and flavor vocabulary and I always had something to learn from him. Even when it comes to horror films, my knowledge of which is pretty extensive.
I dont remember how I found myself here, but every sake enthusiast does eventually. I certainly didnt wander in, being in the basement of an office building with no sign. And when you walk in, you feel like you have walked into a secret Japanese speak easy or a portal to Japan. Sakagura is the New York temple of sake, being the second largest sake bar in the Unites States outside of Hawaii. The company that owns Sakagura, TIC Group, own most of the Japanese establishments on 9th and 10th streets including Robataya and Decibel, both just as stunning and delicious. When I first came here and started to order in English, the waiter walked away and what seemed like the only English speaking waiter took his place. Now a days, there are a lot more gaijin customers.
The first time I came here, I was overwhelmed by the menu. It was the first time I had seen the smv scale and thought someone had quantified the different flavors of each sake. How Brilliant! I have since learned that it is certainly not a science to flavor but I would like to revisit it. I saw one sake that was off the charts in sweetness, so I knew I had to have it. It was the Ichinokura Himezen which is, in my opinion, one of the sweetest sakes ever made and is really a very different kind of sake, like a Riesling or Port. When I tasted this, after the hot sake at Go and the “mild sake”, I was blown away by the range of flavors of sake and it was in that moment that I knew I had to taste every sake in between.
A milestone in my sake education was getting past the hot sake. I did that while out to dinner with friends and someone introduced me to mild sake. I seem to remember it was called that with big letters spelling out “mild” going down the side. It was certainly not the best quality sake but it did begin to open my eyes to the range of flavors that sake could have and it peaked my interest. Now when I went back to Go Sushi I would order all different kinds of sake and Junji and I would have something else to talk about.
Like all Americans, my introduction to sake was served hot and rich with a lot of “kuchi atari” to be slammed down in a white ceramic shot glass. I had just turned 21 and was not an experienced drinker, but I even knew then that this was not for me.
Just out of college, me and my college friends would always go to this one place on St Marks called Go Sushi. It was already small and crowded but we always seemed to occupy a table of no less than seven people and stayed for hours. The manager Junji had a crush on me and he would hang out with us and talk to me all night while he was working. I even went on a few dates with him including a U2 concert that he got free tickets for from his other loyal customers, Ad Rock and Kathleen Hanna. Junji always made sure there was at least a couple of carafes of hot sake on the table.
I was actually not a big fan of alcohol. I know, not a typical 21 year old. I didnt like beer and if it had liquor in it, it had to be sweet to mask the flavor of the alcohol-y fire, the impact, the “kuchi atari”. I never liked to think of myself as girly, so I felt like my taste buds were mocking me and I was eager to find my drink.
This was not it, but at the same time I wasnt completely against it. Little did I know at the time that there are more types of sake than red wine and the type they heat up is always the most rich, the most fire, the most impact, the most “kuchi atari”.