Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

For the sake of a great sommelier

Posted by Kimberly on October 4, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
October 4, 2007, page 2 (1,075 words)

Macau has celebrated a fair few firsts over its years of existence; it was the first (and last) European colony in China. In 2006, it overtook Las Vegas in gambling revenue for the first time. And, as of last month, Macau has its first sake sommelier in Sachii Imamura.
Managing Wynn Macau’s 250-odd sake collection at Japanese fine dining restaurant Okada, the 33-year-old has the difficult task of pairing signature dishes with specific sakes that are intended to complement and enhance the menu’s flavours.
Sake, being a beverage made of rice, which is a grain, would be more related to beer, yet is not carbonated and has a taste closer to wine.
It is not distilled and generally tends to have an alcoholic content between 15 and 17 percent.
The brewing of sake tends to take about a month which doesn’t include the six month period the brew is ‘aged’ before release.
“Sake is more like beer [in that] the freshest is the best,” said Sachii who added that some sake get milder as they age.
“Sake is more like wine [when it comes to consumption] so it is recommended you drink it as soon as it’s opened within five days,” she said, adding that without opening the bottle, it can be kept for up to a year but has to be stored under 5 degrees Celsius.
Sake can be divided into futsu-shu or “normal sake” which make up about 75 percent of all sake produced and okutei meishōshu or “special designation sake.”
Within the latter, there are four types which differ according to the extent to which the rice is polished. As a result, the more this is done, the more rice is needed although this does not affect the alcohol content nor the cost of the sake.
It is simply to produce a characteristic flavour, mainly for the scent of the rice itself to remain.
For those unfamiliar with the role of a sake sommelier, it’s not unlike that of a wine sommelier and also includes a period of study and exam.
“There were four different types of exams, including tasting and planning,” she said. That means making a plan of how to serve sake in certain settings.
Sachii herself holds a Sake Master certificate from the Sake Service Institute of Japan, which is responsible for the origin nomination system of sake in Japan.
At the end of the exams, a pin to signify one’s position as sake sommelier, is awarded.
And as Sachii warned, once this pin is lost, it cannot be replaced. But with a friend who works in that particular department, she’s made sure she doesn’t find herself in such a position, by obtaining another one.
“That one I keep at home,” she added.
Most of the sake sommeliers are male but Sachii hoped this would change in the future as the culture becomes more popular.
Asked whether the sommeliers tend to be Japanese, she admitted that for the most part this is the case, but felt that it wasn’t a role that could be carried out effectively by a Westerner.
“Sake is normally made in Japan using Japanese sake rice so it’s very hard to make sake in other countries,” she said.
“We need to learn the Japanese culture. You really need to be Japanese in nature, so it’s very rare to have a foreign sake sommelier,” she said adding that “maybe there are some foreign people that grew up in Japan and speak fluent Japanese and work in the sake industry in the US.”
Sachii’s philosophy is to enjoy each sake exactly as the brewer intended, which means adding nothing to the original flavour.
In her eyes, the final product is the culmination of the brewer’s vision, expertise and artistry, while her goal is to “help guests find new ways to enjoy sake.”
Her entry into the world of sake began innocuously enough. She admitted that initially, she hated the taste of sake. Yet, as a student in New York, she began the process of looking for a part time job and found one in a Japanese sake bar.
“The bar was just about to open so it was very convenient for me,” she said, adding that “the place carried over 200 kinds of sake and brought new ones all the time from Japan.”
“It carried the largest range in New York so I was very lucky,” she said.
That bar was Sakagura, which has a reputation as New York’s serious sake drinking venue.
From 2003 to 2005 the prestigious Zagat dining guides ranked Sakagura as No. 1 out of every bar and nightclub in New York.
“The restaurant itself tried to educate the staff on sake by hiring a sake professional and giving lectures so I studied from them,” said Sachii adding that the reason for her interest was quite by accident.
“Before Sakagura was built, the company sent me to another one where they let me taste any sake I wanted. But at that time I still didn’t like sake,” she said.
“I tried to taste the most expensive one first and mistakenly chose another one. But that sake was really good and changed.
“I then found an interest in it as that sake was much better than I expected.
“I thought there must be more types of sakes I would enjoy,” she said.
As a result of that extra interest in the subject and just before graduating, Sachii obtained a full time role at Sakagura, which she stayed at for six years as assistant manager.
“I had a chance to take the exam for the sake sommelier so I did another lecture and studied myself for that and passed the exam,” she said.
With more than ten year’s experience in the field, Sachii has worked previously at sister restaurant Okada at Wynn Las Vegas as well as postings with some of New York’s best Japanese restaurants including Sushi Yasuda, which claims to be one of the best in the United States. It was ranked “America’s Best Sushi” by Travel and Leisure in 2001 while Sachii was food service specialist and sake sommelier from 2005 to 2006.
In the end, Sachii hopes that her time at Wynn will bring her the experience she wants to add to her already impressive resume.
And should anyone be curious, that beverage with a dead snake in the bottom of the bottle is not sake.

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