Johanes Yoharry, one of the few certified sake sommeliers in Atlanta, oversees the wine and sake program at Katana Tappanyaki and Sushi in Buckhead and Ichiban Steak and Sushi in Cumming and Alpharetta. A veteran of Japanese restaurants for more than 15 years, Yoharry recently educated Eater on all things sake and explained why you should consider drinking more of the beverage.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in sake?
I've been in the restaurant industry for the past 15 years, mostly in Japanese restaurants. To be honest, I've always been a wine drinker, mostly wine and sake and liquor. As I was putting together wine and sake lists over the years, I got to taste a lot of sake with distributors and got to know a good bit and I realized I really liked sake. As our company grew I decided to expand my knowledge and get my sake certification. I am now a certified sake sommelier, but I also oversee our wine program as well.
For people who might not know much about sake, can you tell us about how it is produced?
There are four important components to making sake are the rice, water, koji mold, and yeast. It starts with long-grain rice; you can't just use any rice. It needs to be a larger and stronger grain that has more starch, called sinpaku. The rice is milled to remove the outer bran of the rice to get the point where the polished rice remains. After the rice is milled, it's soaked, washed, and steamed. After the steaming, the rice is divided into two categories: the rice that will be used to make the sake, and the steamed rice used to make the koji mold. The rice for the koji gets a heat treatment to dry the outside, but it stays moist inside. This allows for fermentation. After several days the two rice types are combined to make sake.
What about the various styles and classifications of sake?
Most sake is categorized as either ginjo, daiginjo, junmai, honjozo, and futsu-shu. Futsu-shu is mostly like a table sake; there is nothing premium about it. Junmai is sake that is purely just rice and water. There is no alcohol added. Ginjo sake is rice that is milled down at least 60 percent and daiginjo is only 50 percent milled. Honjozo has brewer's alcohol added and can be a little bit sweeter.
Is there good sake being made globally today, or is still mostly Japanese?
There are a lot of places that make sake. There was a company making sake in North Carolina not too long ago, but it wasn't great and couldn't compete with what comes out of Japan. Nothing really compares, as of now, to what comes from Japan. As I said, the water used is really important, so it must be something in the water.
What makes a more expensive bottle of sake more expensive?
To be honest, just because a bottle of sake is more expensive doesn't necessarily mean it is good. Each person has their own likes and preferences. The really expensive sakes are milled down to, like, 15 percent, which takes more time and work and also brings out more complex flavors and tastes. However, age is not a factor in price with sake since, unlike wine, sake is meant to be consumed young and fresh.
What's the biggest misconception American diners have about sake?
That's a good question. I often see people dining in Japanese restaurants around Atlanta and they just want to drink beer and wine. When I was in New York City, I saw many more people drinking sake in Japanese restaurants. It was more a part of the normal routine there. I think people are just scared to change their habits, and if they have not had exposure to sake, they stick with what they are comfortable. I think we have to change the conception of what sake is and how it can be an important part of a meal.
For someone who has never tried sake, what does basic sake taste like?
It's probably similar to a dry white table wine. Almost like a chardonnay, but so many American chardonnays are overly sweet and buttery, and sake isn't. It's more like a dry table wine. Sake has a higher alcohol content than many wines which is also makes it different. Sake in this country is usually in the 15 to 16 percent range with alcohol. In Japan you can get sake with 20 percent alcohol, but most sake that comes to this country is diluted with water to reduce the alcohol levels.
Do you think about pairing sake with dishes on the menu?
I function just like a wine sommelier. I'm always consulting with customers about which sake to order to pair with the dish they are eating. I have to think about what they are eating, what type of sake works, and what temperature to serve the sake. Some sakes can be served chilled or warm, but the more premium sakes you don't want to alter the temperature too much. I see many people that think only about hot sake, they don't think that sake can or should be served room temperature or chilled. How sake is served really depends on the type of sake and the meal.
What are you drinking these days when not drinking sake?
I'm a wine drinker. I like mostly red wines, but occasionally a white wine, especially in the summer. I actually started as a wine drinker and then found my way to sake.