By Carrie Ann Salvi
“I am the only certified Sake Somalier on Long Island,” said Ryunosuke (Jesse) Matsuoka of Sag Harbor on Friday. Mr. Matsuoka received the coveted Sake Sommelier status and certification on July 1 from the Sake School of America, accredited by Sake Service Institute International, the largest organization of sake sommelier certification in Japan. There are less than 100 on the East Coast with the designation.
“What Jesse did was rare and hard. There have been a handful of people at that level,” said Jeff Reznick, co-owner of Sen Restaurant, at which Mr. Matsuoka is General Manager, and co-owner. “It’s a very high level of knowledge, and we’re lucky to have that in Sag Harbor. The world of sake is huge,” said Mr. Reznick.
“I passed with pretty good scores,” said Mr. Matsuoka, adding that multiple people did not make it through the challenging courses and three-part test, which included blindfolded scent and taste identification of alcohol percentage, style, and name. Intoxication added to the challenge too, he said, “from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. it was taste, taste, taste, and there is no spittoon with sake.“
Mr. Matsuoka said he also traveled to Japan, where he observed the “big guys” who produce 400,000 sake beverages per day and small breweries who sing as part of their specific timing and custom rituals.
His passion represented by a red shirt with his brass sommelier pin, Mr. Matsuoka said on Friday that sake can be paired with food or with a person’s usual beverage of choice. He is excited to dispel common sake myths and to celebrate its many aspects, a responsibility of a sommelier that comes naturally to him.
As a strategy in his plan to “make people fall in love with sake,” Mr. Matsuoka said he offers the best sake possible at minimal profit margins. “We want them to feel good about buying it,” he said.
Sake choices at Sen range from softer, melon-toned versions such as Sake Matinee, suitable for sipping in the afternoon or a limited-edition autumn variety, a savory unpasteurized product that Mr. Matsoka says has more depth, or as the Japanese would say, “umami.” Whether you spend a little or a lot, you can find any flavor profile you desire, he said. The restaurant also serves sake in the can called Funaguchi, which some staff members call “kiki-u-ass-i” due to its 19 percent alcohol content.
“The tradition is to pour more” Mr. Matsuoka said, and Sen will expand its sake bar and offer sake on tap in late November. “I want customers to enjoy it and then ask for it at another restaurant,” he said.
He helped his new neighbor to the south on Main Street, Wolffer Kitchen, create the sake list for the vineyard’s first restaurant. He worked with Roman Roth, their esteemed winemaker and co-owner, and he said the restaurant’s offerings include “delicious, organic, domestic, draft sake.”
After the busy season, Mr. Matsuoka said he will continue to assist others with their sake selections.
“Jesse Matsuoka was instrumental in building Wainscott Main Wine & Spirits’ sake assortment,” said Chimene Visser Macnaughton on Wednesday. She said he introduced her to Japanese suppliers, resulting in “the finest sake assortment East of NYC.” He also supports the shop with wine education seminars to capacity crowds, she said.
While Mr. Matsuoka believes that “the more sake the better,” and offers 24 sake choices, Sen’s beverage list also has wine, cocktails, beer and sochu, a Japanese alcoholic beverage that is distilled with rice and barley.
“Enjoying yourself with sake is an important part of its history,” said Mr. Matsuoka. “Fun, that’s what it’s all about,” said Mr. Matsuoka, “enjoying with others.”
“We’ve touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sake,” he said. Mr. Matsuoka’s goal is to share sake with as many people as possible and to “open up a sake brewery…create this beautiful beverage in the states on the East Coast,” he said.
Sen is located at 23 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call (631) 725-1774 or visit senrestaurant.com.