As I’ve said all along, one of the main things required to bring sake to a wider audience is education. So many people don’t know what sake is or have skewed or misinformed views of sake that prevent them from trying it (or in some cases trying it again). And who is to provide the education? It’s worth noting that being born Japanese does in no way credit one with an instinctive knowledge of sake so forget listening to the Japanese person who says “of course I know about sake, I’m Japanese”. Nor does years of training as a wine sommelier instantly make one an expert on all alcoholic beverages so be wary of the one who “knows wine, therefore knows sake”. So who to listen to?
Well, someone who has been out in the trenches for longer than most waving the sake flag loud and proud is Toshi Maeda. After arriving in Melbourne in the mid-nineties from Kobe Japan, Toshi enjoyed a fling playing drums on the pub-music circuit before settling into hospitality. Like many young Japanese he wasn’t too enamoured with sake in his younger years, preferring beer and wine with the occasional glass of sake here and there. However, working evenings at a Japanese restaurant Toshi found himself constantly asked by Australian customers for recommendations from their vast sake menu. In an effort to better help his customers Toshi valiantly began tasting as much sake as he could and like many others headed down the sake rabbit hole never to return. Fast forward a few years to 2007 and Toshi eventually opened his own izakaya (casual, shared dining restaurant) in Richmond, Melbourne naming it appropriately enough Maedaya. With the idea of making sake the star, Toshi took a big chance by having no wine on the menu and no BYO. A brave and admirable move! Despite meeting with a little apprehension from some when first opening, customers opened their minds and gave sake a chance finding something on the menu of 115 different sake that they liked. At a recent sake tasting at Wagamama Restaurant in Brisbane I caught up with Toshi for a bit of a chat about all things sake.
When I asked how the “wineless” drinks menu was being received these days Toshi explained that with reputation firmly in place most customers know what they’re in for and among the regular customers there are those that have their favourite sake and just stick to those every time they come and those that want to try something different each time. I have to admit when I visited Maedaya last year I was so enthralled with the range of sake available I didn’t even notice the lack of wine. With that much sake, who needs it? However Toshi also notes that there are still many that come to the restaurant with the image of sake as being a high alcohol spirit to be drunk piping hot as a shot at the end of the meal. This is one of the misconceptions he is keen to erase. “I want people to actually try sake and enjoy it and want to drink it again,” he says. A very important point. Having people try sake once and walk away from it as a one-off experience will do nothing for the industry moving forward. It’s about liking it enough to come back again and again. When I asked Toshi how he convinces customers to go for sake over beer or wine he explains, “I tend to treat sake as wine. You have wine with food and sake should be drunk with food too. Whether it’s a meal or just some simple salty snacks or edamame. And sake goes with so many types of food. Especially with fresh seafood. If you drink wine or beer with some seafood it can leave a strange aftertaste. But with sake the flavours work together without clashing.” However, Toshi also acknowledges the future of sake in Australia lies in experimenting sake with different styles of cuisine besides Japanese. “Sake can be matched with French or Italian dishes very well. Also cheese works well with some ginjo or junmai sake. I wish more restaurants would have at least one or two sake on their list so customers can experience sake with other cuisine,” he says. On the upside sales are strong through his online retail service sakejapan.com.au showing more Australians are in fact drinking sake at home instead of just saving it for when they are at a Japanese restaurant.
After watching Toshi in action on Wednesday night it was clear he is passionate about helping people enjoy sake. Canapés were matched with warm sake (Kizakura Yamahai), a Yuzu infused premix, the fantastic Rihaku Blue Purity Junmai, the sweet and sour Kizakura Nigori and ume-shu (plum wine). And sure enough with a range that wide everyone seemed to find something to their taste. Indeed not all sake is for everyone but there is at least one sake for everyone.
If you’re in Melbourne by all means pop in to Maedaya and have a chat with Toshi and see if he can’t find a sake to put a smile on your face and if Melbourne is a little far sakejapan.com.au is only a click away and you can get all your sake goodness delivered to your front door. As sake’s audience grows it’s good to know there are generous, knowledgeable and approachable people like Toshi Maeda out there on the front lines busting the myths and showing people how good sake can be. Respect.