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An Interview with Toshio Ueno: Master of Sake.
By: Maren Swanson • September 22nd, 2016
Toshio Ueno knows sake.
As young boy growing up in Japan, he helped with the family business on their farm, growing Koshu, a Japanese wine grape. Once he graduated from college in the United States, Toshio joined Chateraise, a pastry and wine company as Director of Sales and then continued on to become Manger of the Business Development Department (Mutual Trading Company) in marketing Japanese foods, Jizake, and Shochu to the mainstream American trade.
Today, Toshio is the only one in the world to hold Master of Sake (酒匠), Master Sake Sommelier (日本酒学講師), and a WSET Sake Educator diploma. To top things off, since 2010, Toshio has been Vice President & Executive Instructor at Sake School of America and continues to judge some of the top wine and spirits competitions in the U.S. and internationally.
I caught up with Toshio recently and took the opportunity to pick his sake pysche. I’ve never been to Japan, myself, but I've worked with Japanese cuisine for over 10 years and had the opportunity to try dozens of the best sakes on the market. I’m always learning...
If you are curious about the world of sake, then start with identifying types of sake (i.e. Daigingo, Gingo, Junmai, Junmai Daigingo, Honjozo, Namazake, Nigori) and then get tasting. In the meantime, take a few notes from Toshio.
1. What bottle of sake changed your life?
When I was about 23-24 years old and single, I used to go to sushi restaurants once a month to treat myself on salary payment day, where I was introduced to premium (highly polished rice grain, ginjo-style) sake. I was so amazed with its floral and fruity aroma, clean and smooth mouthfeel, and that sake made sushi taste better. This changed my life on sake; I did not appreciate sake before then.
2. What type of training/education is required to become a sommelier?
In our program, you are required to take level 1 Sake Adviser course (1 day) and pass the exam (following week: 1 hour exam of 100 multiple questions), and then you take level 2 Sake Sommelier course (2 day lecture, 3 hrs exam on the 3rd day).
3. How has the sake culture changed/evolved in the last decade in Japan?
Sake breweries used to aim for same quality and style in order to win sake competitions in Japan, but this lead to creating many sakes to taste the same, and there are not much uniqueness or characters as each region should have. Now, many younger sake brewers realize the importance of terroir and what customers appreciate - different character and style by using local rice and yeast.
4. What’s the most common misconception of sake?
You are supposed to drink sake warm or hot.
5. Where is the best resource or outlet for sake enthusiasts to purchase good quality sake these days in the United States?
American Retailer: Whole Foods Market, BevMo
< local> The Wine House, Wally’s, Hi-Time, Mission Liquor, Liquorama Japanese Retailer: Tokyo Central, Marukai, Nijiya, Mitsuwa
6. For a sake enthusiast visiting Japan, what type of itinerary or activities would you recommend for an international traveler?
Visit Japan in fall, when brewing season starts; it is beautiful and it is not too hot. I recommend using the bullet train to travel. Have extra days to stay in Tokyo (capital of Japan, visit restaurants and go shopping) or Kyoto (old capital of Japan, visit shrines and temples, and visit Kaiseki restaurant). And especially in fall and winter, go Onsen (hot spring) & Ryokan (traditional Inn with traditional meal). Don’t try to visit as many as possible; instead, visit one per day and spend more time experiencing culture, scenery, and food.
7. Have you noticed sake cocktails appearing on more cocktail lists at bars and restaurants? If so, why?
Not as much as they used to be. I believe as sake quality improves, people will understand and enjoy those high quality sakes more than before.
8. Is it taboo to serve a good, cold sake warm?
Yes, but it is up to one’s preference, and no one should disagree with one’s preference. But you might want to let those experience a good cold sake.
9. How many sake breweries have you visited in your lifetime and which ones would you choose to re-visit? Or a favorite prefecture(s)?
I have not counted them but about 30 breweries.
I like Iwate, Niigata, Fukui, Hyogo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Yamaguchi prefecture.
10. What is the optimal temperature to serve cold sake, and how long will a good bottle of cold sake last in the refrigerator?
It depends on what type of sake but:
Aromatic Ginjo and Daiginjo: 50-59F
Lighter and Refreshing Nama or Honjozo: 41-50F
After opening a bottle of cold sake, I would like to consume it in a week.
If you are interested in becoming a Sake Sommelier or Sake Adviser, check out the upcoming classes at the Sake School of America.