We had a lot of regulars with Asian backgrounds, they knew fairly well about sake and I could feel that there was a growing trend of sake served at non-Japanese restaurants. Guests started asking me about sake because I’m obviously Japanese. I did not have sufficient education in sake so I was just reading off the Japanese words (kanjis) on the label and pretended like I knew everything. I was cheating (laughs), but it sparked my curiosity and I realized that as a Japanese person working in the USA, I should really start learning in depth about the world of sake. I took a temp leave and went back to Japan to take the sake certification program. I visited different breweries, and that was the first step of the sake part of my career.
LA: That’s a very surprising introduction to sake, especially when your certification and expertise was in wine.
ALICE: Right. Especially from the fact that I am from Japan, guests easily expect that I should really know about sake.
LA: I read that you’re the only Japanese female sommelier in L.A. Do you share that title with others now?
A: That may have been the case back in 2013. I know there are many more now. For someone coming straight from Japan, I guess I can say I am rare. To work as a Sommelier, you have to be a storyteller and if English is not your first language, there could be a communication barrier.
LA: Tell us more about that. Did that make you nervous at first? You seem very outgoing. What motivated you to get yourself out there?
ALICE: I kind of have to do. No choice. People come and go in the restaurant business. At one point, I was the only Sommelier in this large scale restaurant with 250 seats, and I just had to run around and touch the tables to keep the show going.
But I really love teaching, for example, about wine. I like the idea of sharing the knowledge of wine to those who want to know. I didn’t have any industry experience at the time, but I really enjoyed it.
LA: As you learned more about sake, did your preference for wine or sake change as well?
ALICE: My interest in sake grew. When I was in Japan, wine was the cool thing and sake was for ojiisans (“male elders”). I wanted to be cool and everything so I opted for wine and didn’t put much focus on sake. But here in the U.S., sake is now the cutting-edge, one of the high-class things, so that really changed overall perspective toward sake. Especially during my tenure at the restaurant, I had a chance to meet a lot of sales reps, and they showcased me a wide range of sakes that you cannot easily obtain. That really helped me open the door. Sake is not just one dimension, it has profound cultural importance and history - never ending learning.
LA: I can feel that your preference for wine is still more than sake…?
ALICE: Well, yes… because, I am still an entry level sake drinker!
LA: (Laughs) That makes sense!
ALICE: Sake is pretty new, but I’ve been drinking wine for more than 10 years now.
LA: What does sake have over wine and what does wine have over sake?
ALICE: Obviously the strength of sake is the power of food pairing. Let’s compare: Wine has acidity and tannin which essentially characterize the style of the liquid that you find in a glass. When you think about pairing, the acidity and tannin are the most important elements you have to worry about. So I would say wine has more vivid characteristics. While sake is considered more mellow, or softer, in terms that it does not have a significant level of acidity and tannin. Sake is not “edgy” in that sense, therefore it will provide a high flexibility and opportunity to pair with a wide variety of cuisine styles.
Sake can pair with foods where wine finds it difficult for bonding. Therefore, it is very useful as it can skillfully “agree” with your chef’s cuisines and you don’t have to modify chef’s style.
LA: You characterize it so well and our readers will appreciate hearing your comparison.
ALICE: I was asked many times if sake makes you really drunk. This image is attributable to “sake bombs” invented in U.S. clubs and bar scenes back in the 90s. Because of this sensational party monster cocktail, many people still have the wrong idea of sake. Overcoming that image will probably take some time. However, think about this: When you look at the sake labels, you will find that the alcohol levels are not too far off from the average alcohol level in wine. I used to explain that a lot to my guests and they got very surprised each time I did!
I think the sake culture in US is stepping into the next stage, “sophistication”. Tippsy will definitely be a great source for educating sake beginners.
LA: We hope so!
Genki: Sake bombs are how the majority of people meet sake for the first time. You know, drinking games having fun and partying around. But sake is not just that and that’s one of the reasons why I started this concept, to educate people about the versatility and potential of sake. How have consumer expectations changed in previous years?
ALICE: There are so many cheap sakes served in many local restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the cheap kind is bad. But most of the restaurants do not offer options and I feel that it is a risk that one mass production sake can fix the image of sakes overall. Another thing is temperature. I have witnessed so many inappropriate sake services at local restaurants. They microwave it! No! You will lose all the great aromas if you microwave sake!
There’s a lot of confusion about whether to serve hot sake or not. Heating is for changing the aromas and it's not intended to just warm the liquid. In Japan, there is a disciplined art and professional guideline for heating up sakes. I hope that education steps into this area so guests can enjoy sake in their full potential.
At my restaurant, I was serving all my sakes in a white wine glass, chilled. I intentionally avoided the heating up service for a few reasons: it could delay the service speed, quality control is very difficult at huge restaurants, and lack of appropriate equipment.
LA: Why a wine glass? Is it for the look?
ALICE: As an alternative for warming sake, the wider shape of the glass will help guests experience the sake aromas more. Don’t forget sakes are very aromatic!
GENKI: Are consumers getting more sophisticated over the years?
ALICE: I’m pretty sure there’s a portion of drinkers who are getting very educated. I’ve heard there are a lot of people visiting breweries in Japan. Until recently not many breweries had tasting rooms but I am seeing that there is a growing trend that breweries build a winery-style tasting room to attract tourism.
From a marketing aspect, Dassai became a pioneer in a successful branding in their sake products. They sponsored red carpet events for movies, celebrity appearances, and made powerful exposure throughout US media. They did an amazing job in promoting sake. If you talk to American foodies, many of them know about Dassai.