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Sake Sommelier

Self Proclaimed Sake Ambassador – Yasuyuki Suzuki

On A Mission To Spread Sake Makers’ Passion

Mr. Suzuki’s favorite sake is Naruto Tai from Tokushima. “You can’t go wrong with it” he says, because it goes with everything especially with delicate tastes like Tai (sea bream), a Japanese delicacy, or even ricotta cheese. Contact:

Mr. Yasuyuki Suzuki is a veteran in the sake industry. Although his training was “from the streets” he’d say, he is now a highly sought out sake sommelier, traveling and consulting restaurateurs all over the US. His undeniable passion and appreciation for sake extends to its makers, telling us that it is the pure love and hard honest work of the sake makers in Japan that keeps him passionate about his work. He spoke to us about his various experiences.

You have worked both in NY and LA. Was there a big difference in terms of sake?
I haven’t lived in LA long enough to make a really thorough observation, but I think the biggest challenge of trying to do Japanese food and sake well in LA for me was the fact that LA doesn’t have a lot of changes in weather and seasons. However, Japanese food is all about these changes, and like food, seasons play a crucial role in sake too. Not only are there seasonal variations in the types of sake, the same sake can have many different tastes depending on the temperature you enjoy the sake in, and the seasonal changes give you the opportunity to play with these changes. It is very difficult to do this in a place where everything stays relatively constant. If change isn’t in people’s ordinary lives, it’s hard to bring that concept about, and these variations are very important for sake and fine dining, so it was a challenge.

What do you think about the sake and food pairing concept in the US?
When I first attended the annual sake pairing dinner at Chanterelle, I was floored by how glamorous it was, but was also very jealous, too! I thought, us Japanese should be the ones doing this. But at the same time, there is a very basic cultural difference. The idea of “pairing” sake with food just isn’t in the sake tradition. In the Japanese culture, the food that you have with sake is called “sake no sakana” (A side dish to sake). Here in the west, it’s “food and wine”, and food comes first. There is a fundamental difference in the role food plays. But I don’t have a problem with the notion of sake and food pairing. I think it’s a start, and I think the concept of food pairing with sake is great in terms of getting the sake industry to grow outside of Japan. But I do hope we can eventually reach it’s traditional notion, “sake no sakana” in the end, here in the west, too. I know how much love and dedication these sake makers put into making sake, so my duty is to bring that spotlight to sake in the future, as it should be.

How important is it for you to talk to the sake makers themselves as a sommelier?
It’s so important. The only way to get the true details of each sake is by talking to the source, the makers. For example, some sake may contain 100 different types of amino acids. Amino Acid is what “umami” (“good tastes” that bond with sake) are made of so, a sake with 100 different amino acids will pair nicer with more foods than sake that only has 10 different types of amino acids. This is very important information when you are creating a sake list. You can only get that sort of information from the sake makers directly. When I go back to Japan, I always go to sake breweries because they give me so much energy and motivation. The pureness of their devotion to sake making hits me in the gut each time. My mission is simple. To become the channel for these makers, and let their passion for sake travel overseas through me. I consider my job as somewhat like being an ambassador for sake, and sake makers.

What’s the best experience you’ve had being in the sake industry?
It was when the president of Nambu Bijin brewery came from Iwate prefecture bringing his sake rice farmers with him. When they saw that the sake made from their sake rice was being enjoyed by all these great looking, fashionable people in LA so far from Japan, the men actually started crying because they were so happy. They came and shook my hand with tears in their eyes. This made me think again about my role and I feel proud of being in the sake field.

Do you have any tips for sake beginners?
The best thing to do is not to be passive in the sake experience. In other words, don’t feel you have to agree with the sommelier, and try to voice your opinion. Tell him what kind of taste you are looking for. Ask for a sample. The more exchanges you have, the more you can learn. The only time one can really tell the taste of sake is when it hits your tongue. It’s impossible to tell anything about sake until then, and we all have different tastes. That’s why it’s so important to be a participator when choosing your sake.