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Sake Sommelier

Sake: Learn It With Your Own Palate

Before becoming the sake sommelier for 15 East, Mr. Akiyuki Sonoda had been the sake advisor for many of the high-end Japanese restaurants including Masa, Ono, and Buddha Bar. In his current location, 15 East where they serve edomae style sushi with a sake list of more than 60 different sakes, he tells Chopsticks NY that he believes sake is something one learns from experience, and not through books.

What would you say is special about sake?
I think the best thing about sake is that it doesn’t get in the way of food. We are a sushi restaurant, and that means the ingredient itself is very important. Most wines will not suit the food here, particularly because with each sushi, you are dealing with a completely different taste. If you are only eating toro, then maybe you can have a glass of something light like a pino noir, maybe, but this will not go at all with any white fish. But with sake, you can have one kind of sake throughout the course of your sushi meal because it basically goes with all seafood.

How did you learn sake, and what has been the most memorable sake for you so far?
I learned sake just by working in Japanese restaurants. I had worked in restaurants since I was a student.  I never relied on books to learn sake. It was all about experience, as it should be because everyone tastes sake differently. You don’t really know sake until you’ve tried it yourself. The most memorable sake for me was Kakunko. I had it the first time when I was working at Masa. We were trying to make sake more accessible to wine drinkers and were looking for a unique sake, and so it was suggested that Kakunko should go on the list.  It’s a pretty expensive sake, but we sold about a case a week which is pretty good, because it really is an unusual sake. It smells like candy, but is a very dry sake. It’s actually a very hard sake to pair with sushi, but back then it was good to have sake with a strong character because people remembered it better.

Have you seen a lot change over the 16 years you’ve been in the business?
The time I was trying to make people remember sake with a unique sake like Kakunko was about three years ago.  Things have changed a lot since,  and now people know a lot more about sake so you don’t have to go to those lengths trying to get people to taste and remember sake. Lots of times, I’m the one getting educated, which is good. It keeps me on my toes. [laugh]

What do you do that’s different here in terms of sake?
We try to keep a good variety of sake available by the glass so that our customers can enjoy the many kinds of sake, instead of having to commit to one bottle for the entire course of their meal. We also offer three different varieties of the tasting menu. One from the sushi bar, one from the kitchen, and one a combination of both that we pair with variety of sakes.

What sort of sake are you drawn to?
Well, I tend to go for Junmai but the kind that’s NOT smooth and clean like Niigata sake. I go for the opposite, the strong tasting sakes, I guess you can say the more traditional, strong scented sakes like the ones from Western Japan that you can drink hot. I’m originally from Fukuoka prefecture where they traditionally produce sake and shochu. Of course I didn’t drink when I was a little boy growing up in Japan, but I think those things have an effect on the local foods too. So I think that’s why the strong tasting sake fits my palate better.

What are some of the challenges you face in trying to promote sake in America?
Too many people over here tend to see wine and sake the same way, so I think our job of trying to get people to see sake as sake, and separately from wine is going to continue for a while. Most people also think sake is only for Japanese food. I have tried putting sake on the list in our French counterpart restaurant (Tocqeville), but people just don’t see sake out of the Japanese context yet.  Also, words used to describe certain qualities in wine such as “fruity,” “dry,” and “acidic” have completely different meaning when it comes to sake, so by using the wine vocabulary, we seem to be creating a bigger gap and misunderstanding. My colleagues and I are always brainstorming to try to come up with other words to describe certain tastes, but it’s very hard.

What are the trends in the sake that are being imported to America today?
I think that even though you are much more limited with your selection, there are many quality sakes coming into America at the moment. Even some that are rare are making their way here, so I think it’s getting very interesting. Until recently, there were only Japanese trading companies that dealt with sake. Nowadays you have many independent American distributors that carry unique ones, so it’s certainly very exciting creating a sake list.

15 East
15 E. 15th St. (bet. 5th Ave. & Broadway)
New York, NY 10003
TEL: 212-647-0015