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Sake Sommelier

New York City’s Best Kept Secret: Bridging the Gap of Sake and Wine — Toshiyuki Koizumi

Sake Hana on the Upper East Side, open for nearly ten years, still manages to keep its obscurity so that it remains the intimate, neighborly, special place it’s always been. It houses more than 60 kinds of sake including some very rare kinds, yet the place’s greatest feature may be the personable sake sommelier, Mr. Toshiyuki Koizumi, who welcomes sake beginners with open arms. His knowledge of both sake and wine allows little to get lost in translation as he keenly demonstrates sake to New Yorkers who are generally more experienced with wine, making the excursion to sake a friendlier experience for sake newcomers.

How did you get involved in the sake world, and what is sake to you?
It wasn’t until I started working at Sake Hana about 7 years ago. When I first started, our customers who are mostly locals automatically assumed I knew a lot about sake because I am Japanese, and it made me feel responsible for representing the Japanese culture correctly to them. Since I liked drinking sake, I decided to really study it. To me, learning about how they were made, who makes them, and the reasons behind these sake names gives sake a deeper meaning that makes you appreciate it that much more. My customers like to hear about the behind the scenes story, too, because I think it makes them appreciate what they’re drinking from another perspective. I’ve heard many fellow Japanese people say that they’ve learned to appreciate the Japanese culture more after they started living overseas. For me, it was sake that took me there. It was like rediscovering Japan.

What is the most difficult part of your job?
Many people in America who are getting into sake often try to understand sake based on their knowledge of wine. But there are some basics that do not cross over to the sake world from the wine world directly. For example, Harushika, and Umenishiki are considered “dry” in the sake senses. But if I were to serve these to a customer coming from the wine mentality asking for something “dry,” they would say it’s not dry enough. That’s because, “dry” in the wine world refers to clean, mineral-rich tastes like Pinot Grigio, whereas “dry” sake may also have a clean taste, but the taste tends to be deeper and can even have a hint of sweetness. So I always make a point to say that it is dry, but it’s dry in the sake sense. Not in the wine sense.

I also heard of a funny story where a Japanese customer was looking for a wine at a liquor store, and asked for a “sour” wine, when they meant “acidic,” because the acidity in Japanese sake is often described as “sour.” These cultural differences are always a challenge. I am now attending wine sommelier school. I try very carefully to observe people describing certain tastes for wine so that I can use them to describe Japanese sake in similar terms to people who are more familiar with wine.

Are there other basic differences between sake and wine?
There are several, but one is that an etiquette on a wine bottle indicating where it’s from, vintage, and type of grapes, can give you a good idea of how the wine would taste like. But in sake’s case, it’s virtually impossible to tell anything from its label. You really can’t tell much about sake just from its production region. The only thing to do is to actually try it. So unless you already know something about that sake, you really can’t rely on the label to guide you.

What is the trick to remembering the tastes of so many different sakes?
In my case, I use colors to associate it with taste. Also I take notes on all the sakes I’ve tasted, and in those notes I draw a horizontal line-graph to describe the initial impact to the aftertaste and the changes that take place from beginning to finish. You tend to remember things more when you can visualize them.

What would be the best way to learn about sake?
There are so many ways, but I’d say, come to me. [laugh] I welcome anyone who is willing to learn. I’ll try to find out what their taste is, and start from there. This would be the perfect place to do so because we often get sakes that are very hard to come by. These sakes come in as samples from brewers who make them to submit to National Research Institute of Brewing in Japan. Of course we don’t get these everyday, but when we do get them in, I like to have my customers enjoy them. Our slection demonstrates the variety of sakes that exist in Japan. You really can’t put a price on these, so we consider it as a service to our customers who want to learn. The best thing about having a small intimate capacity is that it allows us to have more interactions with our customers. So I’d say if you really want to experience sake, come to Sake Hana. I will introduce you various flavors of sake. I guarantee you that I can make you a fan in no time.

Sake Hana
265 E. 78th St. (at 2nd Ave.)
New York, NY 10021
TEL: 212-327-0582