Jesse Selvagn of Bar Otsukare teaches Sake 101 at Crane & Turtle.
Jesse Selvagn of Bar Otsukare teaches Sake 101 at Crane & Turtle.

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If you dine out enough, you’ve probably heard of a  sommelier, maybe even a cicerone, but there’s another beverage certification becoming increasingly popular in D.C., and it says something about the growing popularity of sake.

Jamie MacBain, Daikaya’s beverage director, became a Certified Sake Advisor last winter after taking a one-day, $475 course that culminated in a 100-question test at the Sake School of America in New York. Daikaya paid his way, but he took the class for personal gain, too. “Bartending is becoming a respected profession again,” he says. “There has been a need to develop certifications like Certified Spirits Specialist in addition to sommelier programs that have been around for decades, and sake is next.”

Other local professionals who recently passed the course include Kaz Okochi, chef and owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro, and Jesse Selvagn who co-founded Bar Otsukare, a Japanese beverage pop-up that launched this summer.

“It was really helpful because unlike wine, it’s hard to research and study sake unaided,” Selvagn says. “If I could type in kanji, it would be a whole different story.” Fresh off the course, Selvagn applied his newfound knowledge by teaching Sake 101 courses through Bar Otsukare, which first popped-up at Crane & Turtle.

“Sake is ripe for building upon with the increase of culinary awareness people have these days, especially the attention to sourcing and food and drinks that tell a story,” Selvagn says. “That awareness is increasing, and I hope it’s going hand in hand with sake becoming one of the great beverages of the world.”

Okochi, on the other hand, enrolled in the course to take his knowledge to the next level before launching Monday night sake classes and debuting a new sake menu.

Enrollment at the Sake School of America is trending upwards, according to Executive Instructor Toshio Ueno, who has watched classes grow over the past five years. The amount of sake imported into the United States is growing, too. In 2014, 4.3 million liters of sake were imported as compared to 2.7 million in 2010, according to the Ministry of Finance of Japan. Looking at the years in between isn’t effective because of the impact of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

2015 should be a banner year. “I’m working with a brand right now that sold two containers last year, and this year, so far, we’re already up to five and a half,” says Tiffany Dawn Soto, the Baltimore-based Master Sake Sommelier who founded Sake 2 You and consults at Azumi.

Soto says sake today is where wine was in the 1980s—transitioning from a bourgeois beverage for special occasions to the mainstream. “It’s being introduced on pairing menus and in cocktails, which is what wine coolers did for wine back then.”

Health-conscious Americans are adding to sake’s popularity. “Sake is gluten free, vegan, and vegetarian,” Soto says. “There are no egg whites, fish bladder, or pig spleen like you can find in fine wine, and there’s a big caloric difference—compare 50 calories a glass to 350 in a glass of white wine.”

Not only are there more Japanese restaurants today, Ueno  says, but non-Japanese eateries like Chinese and Thai restaurants are putting in sushi bars with sake menus. In the District, Thai Chef Sushi Bar Restaurant, Teak Wood, and I-Thai Restaurant & Sushi Bar come to mind. But in order for sake to reach its true sipping point, it will need to expand beyond Asian restaurants. Ueno suggests this has already started to happen.

“Even the Court of Master Sommeliers requires the knowledge of sake once you get to the advanced and master levels,” Ueno says. “Sake is not a Japanese beverage anymore. It’s part of wine, it’s part of alcohol drinking on mainstream menus.”

Two such menus can be found at the Partisan and B Side, where Wine Director Brent Kroll carries a sparkling junmai daiginjo. “The sparkling sake can go three to four months without selling, but when it does, people always order a second or a third,” he says. “Once customers start to see sake on other menus, that’s when the light bulb is going to go off.”

Keith Goldston, a master sommelier and the wine director at the Grill Room, has an affinity for sake and has even brewed it in Japan. “I feel like sake is always there on the surface waiting to happen,” Goldston says. “I had it on wine lists way back in the 1990s when I was at Spago for Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas. It had to be a hand-sell from a sommelier or beverage director, people wouldn’t look at the list and order it. That hasn’t happened yet.”

Goldston has used nigori sake in pairing menus with soups and bisques, but the possibilities are endless. “It’s graceful, it’s like a perfectly wonderful butler that will work for whomever, take a backseat, and make everything look better around it,” Goldston says.

Soto would agree. “I believe that sake’s place is not in Japanese restaurants. Sake’s place is everywhere.” Her favorite combination is a pulled pork sandwich with a really bright ginjo, but she also identified fried chicken, ceviche, and braised meat as attractive pairings.

While the idea of spiking wine lists with sake in the District continues to simmer, Japanese restaurants are taking steps to make sake more approachable with user-friendly lists. Sushi Taro, for example, went through a major renovation in 2009, and launched a new sake menu in 2010. “The original drink menu was probably 75 percent Niigata sake because that was the way we could make sure it was the best of the best,” says General Manager Jin Yamazaki. “But this was pushing our taste on everyone else. We started to realize that everybody is different and we needed a more diverse selection.”

Yamazaki had another strategy to steer diners toward sake. “I eliminated all hard liquors, so we don’t have anything but sake, Japanese whiskey, and shochu,” he says. “There are so many people who sit down and order a Kettle One with soda without even looking at the menu, and I want to ask, ‘Why are you here to begin with?’”

Three new additions to the Kaz Sushi Bistro sake list


Okochi similarly started out with a one-note list. “Twenty-three years ago, I picked sakes that were easy to drink—the light and smooth type—but people are learning and there is more available.” Now he’s brazen enough to serve unique picks like Amabuki, a junmai ginjo made with the yeast from strawberries.

Okochi edited his new menu down, removing the Japanese prefectures and the serving size in millimeters. The sake is now categorized into flavor profiles such as “fragrant” and “light and smooth” to aid guests. Finally, Okochi is rewarding those who order a bottle of sake instead of a 6 oz. carafe by providing the opportunity to choose which sake cups they’d like to sip from.

Daikaya similarly organizes their sake by flavor profiles like “light and refreshing” instead of prefecture or classification such as daiginjo and ginjo, which refers to the extent that the rice has been polished. “It’s really confusing for people,” MacBain says. “Listing the prefecture or even the rice used are things a sake geek would love, but for the average consumer, it becomes too much.”

He’s right. Sake is confusing, especially the labels, and it’s creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most consumers don’t know enough about sake to recognize a good value, so they order the cheapest sake on the list. This means they’re not getting exposed to better sakes, thus putting the brakes on sake truly catching on.

“Most people have only experienced low-end stuff used for sake bombs or sake that’s been poured through one of those hot sake machines,” Selvagn says. “Those are the lowest grades of sake you can get—there are no nuances or character to coddle.” Soto agrees. “Sake is not that hot battery acid that you drink with bad sushi at 3 a.m. Sake is as diverse as you can imagine.”

Photographs by Laura Hayes