“Sake is about to have a big, big moment,” says Eater Young Gun Alyssa DiPasquale (’13), advanced sake professional and director of communications at Cushman Concepts, a Boston-based restaurant group known for sake. A thirst for artisan sake, better known as jizake, is growing, perhaps whetted by the rise of natural wine. Seasonal unpasteurized namazake and sparkling sake, both rare outside Japan a few years ago, now regularly pop up on beverage lists from Philadelphia (Royal Izakaya & Sushi) to Portland, Maine (Izakaya Minato) and attract cult followings. The creative pairings such sakes inspire are refreshingly cross-cultural: At Ototo, a sake bar that opened in LA’s Echo Park earlier this year, visitors can choose from dozens of innovative jizake by the glass to pair with French Delice de Bourgogne cheese.
Eater spoke with up-and-comers Jessica Joly (New York City: Sake Discoveries, Tokyo Record Bar, Special Club), Jesse Brawner (Los Angeles: Vine Connections), and DiPasquale (Boston: Cushman Concepts, O Ya, Hojoko) to find out how they’re pushing boundaries in the burgeoning American sake industry and finding inspiration at home and abroad.
The following answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Marketing director, Sake Discoveries
Sake program director, Tokyo Record Bar and Special Club
Eater: What sparked your interest in sake, and how did it impact your career?
Jessica Joly: My first interaction with sake was about nine years ago. I was bartending at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan. I’m Japanese American, and I grew up in Japan, but I wasn’t really taught about sake. I tasted a beautiful daiginjo and I was like, “Wow, this is sake.” It was incredible.
But it wasn’t until about two years ago that I became a full-time sake professional. I was working in fashion and doing sake as a side hustle, a fun hobby that was challenging for me. I decided to take the Kikisake-shi [a professional sake sommelier certification administered by the Sake School of America SSI, and known as Certified International Sake Sommelier outside Japan]. Through taking it, I went to Japan and visited breweries, and I thought, “This is cool.” Like any New Yorker who wants to make a little extra cash, I started doing weekend events and helping people in the industry, like Timothy Sullivan [Urban Sake, Sake Journeys, Hakkaisan Sake Brewery] and Chizuko Niikawa-Helton, who founded Sake Discoveries.
Then Miss Sake USA [a sake ambassador trade competition] was announced and I was like, “Whoa, I should enter this!” I won it, and I got to travel for three weeks all over Japan, visiting brewers and seeing what the whole industry is about.
What are you looking for in the sake breweries that you work with?
Each sake we work with at Sake Discoveries has a very unique story. We always go to the brewery before we decide to work with them. It’s important to understand the regionality and the culture. Like wine, terroir is an aspect for sake, but it’s more about the way the sake is brewed, the toji [master brewer], and the food and culture that surrounds that region. The eastern region of Japan is going to be completely different from the west. In Ishikawa prefecture, for example, the fish is very rich and tends to be aged, so you have sake that’s also richer in flavor and umami that will enhance those oily fish. The brewery we work with from the region, Tengumai, tends to age some of their sake and focus a lot on koji making.
We also want to have a versatile portfolio, so we look for breweries with different features. We’re working with a brewery called Amabuki from Saga prefecture that specializes in only making sake from flower yeast, which is very unique.
In your experience, what’s defining the current moment in sake?
At the breweries, you’re seeing a transition between generations: The fathers are going into retirement, and the kids are taking over, people in their 30s and 40s. A lot of them have been exposed to wine culture or the U.S. market, so they’re trying to find ways to approach sake with that mindset. Before, you’d see more classical styles of sake. But within the last few years, I’m seeing more breweries focusing a bit more on acidity. You have brewers like Senkin, who are two brothers who took over the father’s business. One of them studied wine and is now making sake with super-high acid and a flavor profile that’s sweet and sour. I see a lot of these more modern influences in Japanese breweries, especially in breweries like Senkin and Kaze no Mori “Wind of the Woods,” which is very, very popular in Japan right now.
What’s key to pushing your work forward?
It’s really important to stay connected with the brewers and tell their story. When I won Miss Sake, I told myself I was always going to be the bridge between the people who work at the brewery and the American drinker. It’s not something that you find in books or spec sheets. It’s the feelings, the stories, the inspiration.
Advanced sake professional and director of communications, Cushman Concepts
Eater: What sparked your interest in sake, and how did it impact your career?
Alyssa DiPasquale: I’m half Japanese. I grew up in Massachusetts with my very Italian grandparents and my parents. We had a lot of Italian traditions, like the Feast of the Seven Fishes at Christmas, but not so much Japanese traditions. It wasn’t until I became a hostess at O Ya in Boston 11 years ago, which is when I began working with Cushman Concepts. On my second or third night working there, Nancy Cushman was like, “Oh, have you tried sake before?” In my mind, I saw a slow-motion shot of a sake bomb exploding. She poured me a glass of something called Yuki no Bosha, which is this gorgeous sake with fruit notes and ends in anise, and I was like, “Oh man. That is good.” It was super graceful and light and refreshing, and it felt so different. That’s what hooked me.
I plowed through the list at O Ya and started learning about each one. All of a sudden I was managing the beverage service at O Ya. Now I’ve been working for Tim and Nancy [Cushman] for about 10 years and I’ve been certified [as an advanced sake professional through the Sake Education Council] for five or six.
How does visiting Japanese breweries fit into your work back in Boston?
I went to Japan with Nancy [Cushman] in September 2017, and we visited the Dassai brewery. It’s in Iwakuni, which is in the Southernmost point of Honshu. It’s beautiful. Dassai is a really remarkable brand — they only produce daiginjo-grade sake in milling ratios of a 50, 39, 23, and they have one called Dassai Beyond, which is less than 23 but because it’s so teeny-tiny, there isn’t an exact milling ratio for it. They’re really innovative: With the rice powder that they mill away, they distill that and make their own rice-based shochu, and they also make skincare and ice cream — which is crazy delicious.
Visiting Dassai confirmed the incredible level of detail that goes into making sake like this: Even the way these incredible women were wrapping the bottles. Seeing that live was so lovely, and everyone was so proud of what they were doing. I experienced the sake story in real life that I am very fortunate to tell on a regular basis.
What’s exciting to you about this moment in sake?
When I started at O Ya, I was so enamored by high-end junmai daiginjo with teeny-tiny rice polishes and delicate, pristine flavors. They are gorgeous. But as sake starts to gain more appeal — and I think sake is about to have a big, big moment — I try to think about the way someone would be drinking sake, and it’s generally with food. I’m a food-centric beverage person, and I’m looking for things that have a little more oomph to them — I want people to be less afraid of ordering sake with bigger flavors. There’s a really awesome Yuho sake that has a little age, and that brings in darker caramel notes, and a little acidity, so it really complements the fattiness of a robata-ya grilled chicken wing.
Also, there are some pretty extraordinary women in the sake world right now. There’s a movie coming out this fall [called Kampai! Sake Sisters] featuring Miho Imada [as well as Marie Chiba and Rebekah Wilson-Lye]. It’s pretty extraordinary that women in the sake industry are having a moment. That’s very modern for Japanese culture.
What’s inspiring you to push your work?
Recently, I’ve been attempting to use sake to illustrate the beautiful things about Japanese culture. There are an infinite amount of stories about Japan that have been untold in the United States. I’m finding it cool, personally, to study more about Japanese culture, because growing up, it was a part of me that I didn’t investigate. It was easier to identify with the Italian side of my family, since I was growing up closer to them. Now I keep uncovering all these really awesome stories about Japan, the festivals they throw in different seasons, the rituals that they celebrate. If we can start by telling stories of Japanese sake breweries — because sake is [a] tangible [thing] that people can enjoy immediately — then people might be more open to exploring the culture more.
I also take what I call my sake pilgrimage every fall to a sake importer trade show in New York. I love it. The sake community in New York City is so amazing and wonderful. We have a cool little sake community here in Boston — we rep hard for a small town — but New York City has an amazing community.
What do you want people to know about sake?
Make sure you have fun with it and go to places that are trustworthy and have conversations with their servers. Hojoko [another Cushman Concepts restaurant in Boston] was one of the first places in the country to serve sake on draft or on tank. Representing sake in a way that is more accessible is generally my goal. I like to teach the lesson of why the ochoko — which is the name of the sake cups — are so small, and it’s so you pay attention to the person you’re drinking with. You never pour for yourself; the person you’re drinking with is paying attention to the level of sake in your glass, and they pour for you. It’s a sign of gratitude and engagement with the person you’re with. So keeping it fun and about the experience of enjoying sake together is what it’s all about.
Sake specialist, Vine Connections
Co-organizer, KAMPAI LA!
Eater: How did you come to choose sake as a career?
Jesse Brawner: My father and grandfather were both wine and spirits salesmen back home in Wisconsin. I moved out to LA in 2010, and I was working in natural wine at Domaine LA and at restaurants like Bestia. In 2013, my uncle took me to Japan — he’d lived there for a couple of years and speaks Japanese fluently. I’d never been exposed to craft sake before. He took me to a couple of sake bars in Tokyo — Sasagin and Sake no Ana, and shops like Suzuden — and they completely grabbed me. It was similar to the first time I had tasted natural wine. These sake spoke to me, they had a soul, they had a wider range of aromas and flavor profiles than I’d ever experienced. By the time I was able to work at Shibumi in Downtown Los Angeles, I was fully immersed.
I also took John Gauntner’s [sake certification] classes in Japan. John’s first course connected lots of dots for me — seeing the breweries, getting hands-on with it, meeting the people who make these sake. It was super inspiring. I came out with a whole new respect for people who produce sake, and an overall understanding of how complex it is. Even at a brewery that doesn’t use any modern machinery, the number of different things going at the same time, and the ability to recognize and manage all of that, is insane. At the small level you see people washing rice by hand, elbow-deep in 35-degree water. That’s a whole new respect.
Does your experience in natural wine translate to your work in sake?
I’ve worked in service for so long, and it’s all about reading people. It’s super hard to generalize, because every buyer and every person is so different. My job is just to get them psyched on sake. I get a lot of enjoyment out of showing people something that they’ve never been exposed to.
You have to demystify sake. It reminds me of working with natural wines 10 years ago in Los Angeles, where you’re almost defending a category. A lot of people are highly opinionated about it and won’t even bother to taste it. To be honest, it’s been a little challenging to get wine drinkers to drink sake: They want to relate it to wine, but sake is its own category.
What are some ways to approach the challenge of expanding sake appreciation?
In 2017, a couple of friends of mine that had worked at Shibumi and I started doing these pop-ups for fun. We called ourselves the Bonito Boys. It ranged from small pop-up parties and happy hours at bars to tastings and what we called Pizza-kaya — sake and pizza pairings — or pairings with cheese. Some of us have moved, but we still do collaborations. Pairing sake with food that’s not Japanese really opens up the experience. One of our producers, Tensei “Song of the Sea,” is from surfer country in Kanagawa. They have an Italian restaurant on their property, pairing sake with Italian food. It’s super progressive.
A couple other sake reps and I started something called Kanpai LA. Most industry tastings have big tables, with somebody pouring and talking about the product in a sterile environment. We wanted to do something a bit different and throw more of a party, have a DJ, and just be fun and accessible. We want people to taste sake, because a lot of people out there haven’t tasted the wider range of what’s available.
Where do you see sake culture in LA heading in the next few years?
I really do compare it to the natural wine scene in Los Angeles like 10 years ago. In Los Angeles, sake is getting more popular, but we still lack good dedicated retail shops for sake. There are some people who are starting to bring in small sake selections, and some non-Japanese restaurants are starting to carry it, so you see it creep into lists. I think once people are exposed to sake, they’ll realize the quality and craftsmanship and the fun stories, and see that this is a whole realm of beverage to get into.
Katie Okamoto is a Los Angeles–based writer and former editor at Metropolis, the New York–based design and architecture monthly. Find her work at katieokamoto.com and occasionally on Twitter and Instagram.