Expert and Sake Sommelier Peyton Walston is a team member of Hai Hospitality owned by Tyson Cole, one of the few American sushi masters and James Beard Award-winning Chef and passionate student of the Japanese tradition.
He has introduced this tradition throughout Austin, Dallas, Houston, Denver, and Miami with restaurants Uchi, Uchiko, and Uchibā. Hai Hospitality’s restaurants all honor the Japanese tradition, specifically showcasing the beautiful, traditional beverage, Sake, in a variety of different ways.
Peyton Walston shares Cole’s enthusiasm and passion for Sake and truly enjoys enhancing the guests’ experiences by introducing and educating them about the spirit. We asked Peyton to share few Sake facts and tips with us, like how to properly drink Sake and how to choose between drinking it hot or cold and filtered or unfiltered.
What exactly is Sake?
Sake is in a category all by itself. It is neither beer nor wine. Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from rice, water, koji, and yeast. It is fermented similarly to beer, but isn’t beer, and even though the term rice wine is so popular, it isn’t wine either.
How do you choose between filtered or unfiltered Sake?
It’s all about the food and the mood. Outside of Japan, we don’t see as many nigori (unfiltered) sakes offered, so oftentimes I drink filtered sake because there are usually more options and variety on a menu. Nigori can range anywhere from chunky and intense to whispery and delicate. Most nigori that is available outside of Japan has a silky mouthfeel with a cooling nature. This makes nigori ideal for spicy food! If I’m in the mood for a fun cocktail, then I might choose a nigori, but if I’m craving a glass of wine, I might go for a filtered sake instead.
How do you choose between hot or cold Sake?
This all boils down to the season and the style of sake! In Texas, we tend to stick to cold sake, but if I’m visiting Uchi Denver, hot sake is the answer. When deciding which sake to heat – gently warmed, not boiling – I like to think about what flavor profile the sake has. Sake with delicate tropical and floral notes are not going to do well under heat, but Sakes that has a lot of umami are excellent for heating up. All those fatty, smokey, nutty aromas and flavors are highlighted and rounded in a really craveable way. It’s all about experimenting and figuring out what you like, as long as you’re not boiling sake!
Do you have any Sake pairing tips that you can share? What dishes or flavor profiles pair best with filtered, unfiltered, hot, cold, etc.?
Sake encompasses a very wide variety of flavors and aromas, so it’s hard to pair general categories like filtered with X, cold with X, etc. Generally, I love nigori (unfiltered) with spicy foods! If you’re new to sake and want some tips on how to pair sake in our restaurants, think about the flavor profiles and grades. Typically, Ginjo and Daiginjo sake have a lot of fruit and delicate floral aromas and flavors. I like to think of these sake as my light cocktail or bubbly at the beginning of the meal. They pair nicely with crudos and light-bodied fish. Contrastingly, Ginjo+ sake are excellent with tempura! Aromas of melon and lilly help cut through salty tempura. If you’re in one of our restaurants, ask your server if there are any Fried Aji Bodies then order a glass of Yuki no Bosha (a Ginjo that’s in every Uchi restaurant). It’s one of the best pairings I’ve ever had; a server (Dave Baroody) at Uchi Austin turned me on to this! Now if you’re stuck on how delicious Ginjo is, and are an adventurous eater, try Ginjo and Mackerel or more oceanic fish. Again, the contrast between fruit and umami-salinity is fabulous! As you progress through the meal, go lower in grade. Honjozo and Junmai sake are excellent with richer dishes like Gyutoro and Pork Belly. They have a lot of umami and help progress the meal to a crescendo! For dessert, look for Kijoshu (dessert) or Koshu (aged) sake. Each of our restaurants have a different selection so ask your server for a dessert sake pairing. In general, if you’re a chocolate lover, dessert sake is going to take the cake (chocolate cake that is). On a personal note, one of my all-time favorite pairings is namazake (unpasteurized sake) with pizza. Namazake has a lot of intense umami and acidity that pairs perfectly with all cheese and tomatoes. But if you’re a cheese lover, I’d start by enjoying any sake with your favorite spread. Seriously, cheese and sake, this is the best way to get into sake.
Do you have any favorite Sakes now? Tell us why.
It’s like asking a mom who their favorite child is. There’s an answer, but you must tell everyone you love your kids equally…and I do. BUT one of my all-time favorite sake is Yuho “Rhythm of the Centuries”. The brewery is run by President Miho Fujita who focuses on making sake that she wants to drink with the foods she likes, which tend to be funky and savory food. The name Yuho means Happy Rice but is also a tip to the city’s UFO sightings. The sake is layered and rich and only develops in flavor over time as it stays open. This is a sake that’s best drank room temp but has something to stay at every temperature. My favorite domestic sake is anything from Brooklyn Kura. In my opinion, it’s the only domestic sake that stands up to Japanese sake. Brandon and Brian are the owners and have dedicated so much time studying the craft. They have worked side by side with many Japanese brewers collaborating on some delicious juice. We carry the #14, an unpasteurized Ginjo, but have loved everything to come out of the Brooklyn Kura.
How do you drink Sake?
Sake drinking culture is very interactive and intimate. One of the most common vessels for sake is a pair consisting of a wooden box, or masu, and a small cup also known as a choko. The choko sits inside the masu and as you pour the sake into the choko you let it overflow into the masu. Overfilling the cup is a sign of prosperity and generosity. I love this simple yet very extra sign of hospitality. Another “rule” when enjoying sake is that you never want to pour for yourself. Keeping your friend’s cup filled requires intentional attention to what is happening at the table. It forces you to be more engaged with the needs of your drinking companions, and that is what imbibing is all about – sharing a delicious moment with your friends.