Catching up with Michael Tremblay, the National Head Sake Sommelier for ki modern japanese + bar, on how to drink sake and what it takes to be a sake expert.
You’ve heard of a wine sommelier, but did you know there are sake experts, too? Michael Tremblay is one of Canada’s foremost sake experts, and he’s currently sharing his wealth of knowledge with lucky diners at ki. We sat down with Michael to hear some of his sak wisdom— and find out more about his path into this unusual career.
Bento Box: How did you get so into sake?
Michael: It started with a passion for wine—I started as a mixologist in the early days. Seven years ago, I came to ki and fell in love with Japanese cuisine and with sake. It was a perfect time for me to join the team at ki—at that time, there were 21 sakes on the sake list. Now, there are between 60 and 65! Five years ago, I became the sake sommelier at ki.
BB: What sort of training does it take to become a sake expert?
Most recently, I went to Japan and was certified to teach the WSET [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] Level 3 Award in Sake, which I was very proud to complete. In addition to this, I have all of the sake education you can receive and have become one of the most decorated sake experts in Canada. This, in addition to my hands-on learning, has given me insight into the world of sake.
I believe that you have to do more than just read about something to truly learn it. Consequently, I have travelled to Japan on several occasions in the past three years to work at making sake and to visit many breweries. This helped enhance my sake knowledge (and helped my Japanese a lot!).
BB: How common are sake sommeliers?
Not as common at wine sommeliers! When I completed the Level II Advanced Sake Professional Course several years ago, I was the only one in Ontario!
BB: How can I broaden my sake knowledge through taste?
Right now at ki, we offer Sake Master Dinners, where sake brewers come from Japan. For these dinners, I work with the chefs to make a perfectly paired meal. We also offer a sake flight program with different styles to highlight some of the fantastic, and sometimes rare, sakes we are able to bring in. On Friday nights, we offer a special sake flight of three one-ounce sakes.
BB: How should sake be served?
It depends on the sake. Serving temperature is important—some sakes do best chilled, some at room temperature and some warmed up. When creating a sake dinner, I might serve the sake chilled or increase umami by serving it at room temperature or warmer. The type of cup sake is served in—say glass or ceramic (ochoko)—is also important. For instance, premium sakes are wine- like in character, so bigger glass bowls may enhance the aromas. The thicker lips of the ceramic glasses change the body of the sake and are great for fuller, richer types of sake that are served at room temperature or gently warmed.
BB: What does the look of sake say about its taste?
You can tell some things from the look of a sake. If a sake has a pale yellow-gold tint, it is probably not charcoal-filtered, and it may therefore have a fuller flavour. Amber-coloured sakes may have sherry-like aromas and maybe caramel or dried fruit characters, or perhaps they were not stored properly and are past their prime.
BB: I’ve heard that only cheaper sakes are served warm—is this accurate?
No! It is true that table sakes are often served warm in order to smooth the rough edges of the sake. However, premium sakes are also served warm. At ki, we warm sake in black crystal pots with hot water.
BB: How long can you keep an opened bottle of sake?
I find that you can keep a bottle for two weeks in the back of the fridge without it depreciating. One trick I have is to transfer the remaining sake to a smaller bottle so that it keeps better. Sake is more forgiving than wine and keeps longer.
BB: What is your favourite sake custom?
That you never pour for yourself, but are always looking to offer sake to your friends.
BB: So, what are you up to next?
I am going to Vegas in August to teach the WSET course. I am also in the process of creating a basic sake course that is more geared towards sake enthusiasts. This will be offered this fall at the Independent Wine Education Guild. This course will serve to prepare students that want to sign up for the more intensive WSET course.
For more info on Michael’s sake course, visit www.iweg.org/courses/sake-deconstructed
Michael has trained with world-renowned sake expert John Gauntner in both Tokyo and New York, and he is Ontario’s first Advanced Sake Professional. Michael is also a certified International Kikisake-shi and holds the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake. Michael is dedicated to finding unique sakes so that others can enjoy them too.