Since opening its doors five months ago, Saiko Sake & Sushi Bar has brought the world of premium Japanese brewed sake to North Park. Co-owner Evan Bennett, who also runs Saiko Sushi in Coronado with executive chef Anthony Pascale, is one of only two Certified Sake Professionals (CSPs) in San Diego; we sat down with Bennett to discuss Japan's national drink, his carefully curated flight menu, and how he’s championing craft sake here in Southern California. On Thursday, May 14, Saiko in North Park will host five of Japan’s master sake brewers for the Joto Sake Brewers Dinner that includes a five-course pairing menu plus introductory tutorial on the specialty sakes being poured.
How about a quick ‘sake 101’?
Sake is made with four ingredients - yeast, water, rice and koji (fermented mold). Its classifications are important to understand as they influence both taste and price - the more polished the rice, the higher the sake grade. The four main grades are: Honjozo (mid), Ginjo and Daiginjo (premium) and Junmai (ultra premium). While some different styles include: Koshu (aged), Nama (seasonally produced, unpasteurized), Nigori (‘cloudy’ or unfiltered), and Futsu-shu (usually served hot). A Tōji (master sake brewer) will release sake when it’s ready to be enjoyed, usually within one year of its release date.
What does it take to become a CSP?
The CSP course itself runs over three days and covers sake terminology, classifications, production and culture. During that time you sample and identify 90 sakes followed by an extensive final exam – with plenty of reading and studying beforehand. The program was founded by the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert John Gauntner, and is recognized by the Sake Education Council.
What's your philosophy behind the tasting flights on the menu?
Most people have tried hot table sake, or an overly sweet Nigori, but there are so many nuances to this fascinating drink. It can be as complex and diverse as wine, and pairs well with many cuisines, not just sushi. By providing tastings, keeping up with new trends and products, and introducing these to our customers, I want to help change perceptions about sake. I’m passionate about the educating people about sake, and a tasting flight is a great place to start.
How did you design the menu?
Our menu is divided into six groups based on tasting impressions, each one acts as a pairing guide for different foods. To help people explore different sake styles, descriptors range from "light & sophisticated" to "rustic & robust". For example in the Sea Flight we have clean-styled sakes that go well with sashimi and salads, to full-flavored sakes in the Land Flight that pair with grilled meats and vegetables. The Nigori Flight tends to be sweeter and goes well with desserts. We currently have 19 sakes on offer, from bold and strong umami, to delicate and dry, with a bit of everything in between. At one end there is White Deer, a rich Taru or cedar-aged sake with dried stone fruit tones. A little more light and sophisticated, the Cherry Bouquet is a floral Ginjo with peach, radish and dried fruit overtones, while Beautiful Lily is a soft, clean and medium dry Honjozo with a slight nuttiness that makes for some very easy drinking.
What’s your go-to sake?
Shichi Hon Yari "7 Spearsmen" is a favorite I come back to time and again. It’s actually brewed by the second oldest, and one of the smallest sake breweries in Japan. Founded in the 1540s, it’s still run by the same family in Shiga prefecture – that’s 15 generations of sake brewers! I call it a whiskey drinker’s sake as it has depth, nice earthy tones and a hint of grapefruit on the palate.
What’s a good ‘first-timer’ sake?
Sake Matinee is a perfect ‘gateway sake’ – a charming Junmai with a faint taste of wild plum it represents a new direction for Japanese brewers. Sake is considered an evening beverage in Japan, so Matinee was produced to appeal to the daytime crowd. They took the alcohol content down to 12% (the average is 15%), which resulted in a finely balanced sweetness and acidity.
What next for your sake program?
In preparation for the Level II Advanced Sake Professional course in Japan, my goal is to apprentice under a master Tōji at a Japanese brewery sometime next year. We have a great team here at Saiko and focus on their sake education with regular tastings and Q&A sessions, so I’m also hoping to get some young CSPs coming up through the ranks soon.