For Goodness Sake: A Q&A with sake sommelier Mariko Tajiri

Sake sommelier Mariko Tajiri talks with us about how the world of sake is changing and why you're missing out if you only pair it with Japanese food.

For Goodness Sake

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became interested in sake.

I started working in the sake world 10 years ago. I used to work in wine retail and this job for an importing company for wine and sake came my way; I've been there for 10 years now. But in that time, I've also gone across B.C., Alberta and Ontario and done lots of sake seminars and events and dinners, so I also do a lot of those kinds of things across the country.

You're an official sake sommelier, is that right?

Yeah, and there's a few certifications that you can do for that. There are different bodies and different sake schools. I went to my first course in Portland and then did my second certification in Japan. From there, I went to WSET, which is a wine school in London, U.K. They just launched their sake curriculum two years ago in 2015 and I did that certification with them in 2016.

Are there many sake sommeliers in the world? It seems like a unique speciality.

It's up and coming. Sake sommeliers used to be restricted to Japan because there was only one school, the Sake Sommelier Institute of Japan, that offered certification. They've started offering their courses in English now, and I think the number of sake sommeliers has gone up quite a bit as a result; but it's still obviously nowhere close to the number of wine sommeliers we see in the world. In Canada, I’d say there are maybe 10 sake sommeliers at my level.

It’s an interesting time for sake because there are more and more younger brewers

For those new to sake, is it best compared to wine, beer or spirits?

In terms of production, it's most closely related to beer. There’s a fermentation process and also a saccrification process where the starches have to be converted into sugars, which is more similar to beer production than to making wine. Like with beer, the places it’s made are called breweries and the people who make the sake are called brewers.

Is sake best enjoyed fresh like beer? Versus aged like wine?

For the most part, sake is brewed to be consumed fresh -- usually within the year that it was released. It’s an interesting time for sake because there are more and more younger brewers. Back in the day, it was only older men brewing the sake and drinking the sake, so it was all similar in style.

But in the last 20 years, you’re starting to see people taking over their parents’ breweries who have travelled and learned about vintage declarations from the wine world, so some of the brewing practices are changing. So, most sake should be consumed fresh but there are some exceptions that have been aged or vintaged on purpose.

Mariko Tajiri

What are some of the breweries that are doing cool, new things with sake right now?

The big one that comes to mind is Kuheiji from Aichi Prefecture in Japan. He grows all his own rice in his own fields and he’s been putting vintages on his sakes since 2008. He has a lot of fans but also a lot of people who think he’s just crazy. He’s polarizing but his sakes are very good.

He’s really changed the face of sake and allowed for younger brewers to follow in his path. Japanese culture is so traditional and people tend to conform to the norms, and he’s showing brewers that it’s ok to not be traditional.

Is there good sake being made globally? Or is it still restricted to Japan?

There are between 1,200 and 1,400 sake breweries in Japan, so most of the world’s sake is still being made there. Some of the big Japanese companies like Gekkeikan also have operations in the US, but there are also craft breweries popping up. We have Izumi here in Toronto in the Distillery District and there are a couple in B.C. and in Norway and I think there are some opening up in Australia and Spain as well.

What are some of the basic styles of sake?

Sake can be separated in two big categories: added-alcohol styles and non-added alcohol styles. For the added alcohol ones, brewers add a little bit of distilled alcohol right before pressing in the brewing process and this releases aromatics and tastes that would otherwise be trapped in the rice. It’s like a dose of steroids, adding a little extra oomph to the sake. Whereas with traditional non-added alcohol styles, the flavours and aromatics are left to occur naturally. Both types end up being around the same alcohol percentage, which is about 13 to 17 percent, but the added-alcohol styles are a bit more perfumed.

It's hard to make a big mistake when it comes to pairing sake and food

Are there particular kinds of sake that are better served hot versus cold?

The styles of sake that you want to serve warm are the ones that are more full-bodied and earthy. The ones that don’t have as much richness and acidity become kind of sweet and cloying when you warm them, which you don’t want.

The rice that’s used for sake brewing is polished so that the outside layers of fats and proteins are taken away. The more the rice is polished, the more expensive and delicate the sake is. These sakes tend to be more wine-like and you don’t want to serve those warm. You’d want to serve them at a white wine temperature.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions Canadians have about sake?

One of the big ones is that sake should only be paired with Japanese food. For the most part, I think people only think to drink sake when they’re at a Japanese restaurant. But there are so many more expressive sakes around now that can be paired with all sorts of things, like charcuterie or cheese and olives all go well with sake. I’ve done French dinners and Italian and even oysters with sake, so all meals where sake might not be the first drink pairing that comes to mind.

Some types of sake are best served at white wine temperature.

Are there certain things that people should keep in mind when pairing sake with food?

Sake for the most part has a lot less acidity and there's like no tannins and all those things that we worry about with wine pairings, so it's hard to make a big mistake when it comes to pairing sake and food. But I like to pair the intensity of the sake with intensity of the food. So, if you have a light sake and you pair that with a strongly flavoured dish, you’re obviously going to lose out on the taste of the sake.

Do you have any favourite places in Toronto for sake?

One of my favourites is Imanishi, it’s a little Japanese bar on Dundas West.

Do you like sake cocktails?

I think in my role, I'm supposed to say “yes” but I actually don’t! Sake has a low alcohol content, so it’s kind of like making a cocktail with wine. I’ve had some good sake cocktails, but they’re usually helped with shochu or gin or some other additional element.

There are some great infused sakes that would maybe be better for that, like Momokawa Sake Brewery in Oregon makes sakes infused with lychee, lemongrass and things like that.

There are so many more expressive sakes around now that can be paired with all sorts of things

What can we expect at the Kampai Festival of Sake this year?

There are going to be more than 150 kinds of sake to taste and around 50 brewers coming from Japan for the event. It's always a great atmosphere where you can meet the people who make the sake.

We also have a few sake samurais, who are people from all over the world who have promoted sake in a significant way. We have Antony Moss coming from the UK who is charge of WSET’s sake program, as well as the ambassador to Canada from Japan.

There’s also going to be an artisan alley by Izumi featuring work by some Japanese artists. We have a new line-up of restaurant partners, along with some returning favourites, that I think will help people see that sake doesn’t always have to be paired with Japanese food.

Kampai Toronto is taking place June 1 from 5:30 to 9:30 pm at The Fermenting Cellar in the Distillery District.