As Edmonton diners become more experienced with Japanese cuisine — thanks to a number of new izakayas and other Japanese restaurants that have opened over the past few years — sake is appearing more frequently on drink menus. No longer the sole purview of sushi joints, sake is an increasingly common by-the-glass option, as well as a cocktail ingredient.
Ikki Izakaya lists almost 30 different types of sake on its drink menu, by the glass and bottle; it also offers tasting flights. Owner Ayumi Yuda says that when Ikki opened in 2015, only about 20 per cent of its guests were familiar with Japanese food and drink.
“It’s really nice to see people coming back to us and telling us about how they never used to drink sake, but now they’re hooked and they can’t wait to try something new,” Yuda says. “People never ask me for wine anymore.”
Tony Britton, former beverage director for Japonais Bistro and both Dorinku locations, says the Alberta market features higher quality sakes nowadays, as opposed to a few years ago. This is helping to dispel the stigma associated with lower quality sake, which was often served very warm or even hot, to mask the imperfections.
“I think people are breaking out of the misinformation that used to be spread — that sake should be served insanely hot and it’s all really harsh and alcohol forward,” he says.
Sake is also a natural choice for drink menus because it pairs so well with food. “Being more umami-based than acid-based, it pairs with almost everything,” Britton says. “It doesn’t really break any dinners.”
Baijiu introduced a sake program in January 2020. Bar manager Shawn Gilhespy says it was a natural fit with its Asian-inspired menu. “Our client base is still getting used to the idea of sake, so it took some time to catch on,” he says. “People learning about sake are seeing it as something a little more approachable and not so intimidating.”
Sake is traditionally served at room temperature in small porcelain cups. Yuda serves it this way at Ikki Izakaya, except for the occasional premium sake, which she serves chilled, in a wine glass. She no longer gets frequent requests for really hot sake — in the past, some of her guests even asked for it to be microwaved.
“I definitely want people to drink it at room temperature, rather than super hot,” Yuda says. “That’s my way of drinking it. In Japan, over half of the people like it at room temperature.”
Baijiu serves sake in wine glasses, which according to Gilhespy, allows you to better experience its aromas and flavours. As a more casual option, the restaurant also offers a “sake bomb.” That’s a shot of sake followed by a chaser of Sapporo draft beer.
With its umami-rich flavour, sake offers an intriguing counterpoint to regular grape-based wines. As Edmonton restaurants and diners alike continue to become more knowledgeable and experienced, we’ll see sake appear as an alternative to traditional drink options.