Yasuyuki Suzuki is the sake sommelier for Sushi Seki's new location in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Previously, he's developed sake programs at restaurants in both Los Angeles and New York, including at 15 East. His list at Sushi Seki includes nearly 50 different types of sake by the bottle. We recently chatted with Yasuyuki about how to learn about sake, common misconceptions, unusual pairings (did you know sake is great with cheese?), and more...
Where should beginners start with learning about sake?
I think people should first experience the difference between pasteurized sake, which is more common, and unpasteurized sake, known as draft sake or name-zake. Pasteurized sakes can be kept on the shelf longer but every spring is when the draft sakes are finished brewing and are released into the market. They have such great aromas and all their original flavors from the brewery. It's a great way to experience the true tastes of sake.
Then I think people need to experience nigori-zake, which is what's often known in the market as "white sake" or "cloudy sake." This type of sake tends to be pasteurized but is unfiltered. It shows that sake by itself has enough flavor to stand up to everything from burgers to chicken.
Are there any books you can recommend for someone looking to learn about sake?
The Sake Handbook written by John Gauntner. He's one of the most well-known sake authors, leads sake courses and tours through breweries regularly.
What do you think people get wrong about sake?
There are a couple of common misconceptions. For starters, people sometimes believe that the most expensive group of sake, the classification of Junmai Daiginjo, is the best sake. But just because it's more expensive doesn't mean it's the best.
Junmai Daiginjo is just a style of sake that indicates at least 50 percent of the rice has been milled away, result in a light brightly flavored sake. Bottles of Junmai Daiginjo often go for $80 to $100. But great Junmai sake, which has less rice milled away than Junmai Daiginjo, can cost about $10 per glass. The only reason for the high price of Junmai Daiginjo is due to Japanese marketing standards. But I personally love the more affordable Junmai sake, especially with a variety of food. It's more versatile in terms of temperature and can be enjoyed with really rich flavors, meats, etc.
What foods make particularly good pairings for sake?
Any preserved or pickled food that contains a high amount of umami has a great chance to go really well with sake. It may sound surprising, but cheese is really fun to pair with sake, especially if the sake properly aged. I love drinking sake with Italian cheeses like parmigiano reggiano, fresh mozzarella, and even ricotta.
Are there particular types of sake to seek out for pairing with cheese? What types go well with aged cheeses vs. fresh cheeses?
Fresh cheese is best paired with a lighter, refreshing style of sake, such as junmai ginjo, the second classification of sake. Aged cheeses, like blue cheese, parmesan, and various, creamy, "stinky" cheeses go best with aged sake, such as the brand Tenryo Koshu. This is junmai daiginjo sake aged for four years in a bottle. It develops tasting notes of caramel, raisin and mushrooms, so it works great with strongly flavored aged cheeses.
Is sake-drinking done differently in Japan?
There are a few differences, first off is that Americans tend to choose their food first and then pick a sake to go with it. But when the Japanese drink sake, that's their first priority. They pick the sake first and then a side dish to go with it, called a sake no sakana. It's often something preserved, pickled or salty, like beef jerky, sardines or pickled vegetables.
Another difference is that Japanese tend to vary the temperature of their sake a lot more, especially depending on the season. They are much more eager to drink room or warm temperature sake in the winter, rather than chilling their sakes. They know that there are lots of great sakes from the Northern region of Japan that taste great when served warm and with a hearty, salty snack like beef jerky.
But these days I actually think that New York diners are very sophisticated sake drinkers, in some cases even more so than Japanese diners.