Somm Like it Hot

Talking Sake Shop With Master Sake Sommelier Yuji Matsumoto

Written By: Mary McNulty

Photographed By: Alex Thompson

The Expert: Yuji Matsumoto

Credentials: Master Sake Sommelier and Beverage Director for Kabuki Restaurants, Inc.

Must Try Cocktail Creation: Sakejito—Matsumoto’s twist on the classic mojito

“Since the rice in sake is comparable to the grapes in wine, there must be a prime location for growing this specialty. The rice for premium sake is made from the rice in the Kobe area, just like the beef.” —Yuji Matsumoto

Few individuals have shown the love for a restaurant and beverage career as Yuji Matsumoto. An impeccable professional, from his attire to the method in which he displays and pours sake, Matsumoto oversees many aspects of the Kabuki Japanese Restaurant chain as Master Sake Sommelier and Beverage Director. Located throughout the West (California, Nevada, and Arizona), all beverage decisions of the 17 restaurants are in Matsumoto’s extremely capable hands.

Kabuki has concentrated its efforts in the Southern California area with 13 restaurants located as far south as Irvine and as far north as Oxnard. The Hollywood location is in the crazy heart of the city, on Sunset and Vine, yet once inside, Hollywood appears as quiet and calm as Matsumoto himself. The lighting and relaxed furnishings provide an excellent backdrop for a wonderful meal and glass of sake.

Highlighting this lovely atmosphere is Matsumoto’s respect for his Japanese culture, especially the food. Born in Kobe, Japan, Matsumoto was the first Master Sake Sommelier in North America, first earning the honor of Sake Sommelier in 2004 and then receiving the title of Master Sake Sommelier in 2008. Eleven years later, he is one of two individuals in North America to earn the title of Master Sake Sommelier. Indeed, no easy task.

Matsumoto is obviously one of the leading experts in the world when evaluating sake. His Master Sake Sommelier title speaks volumes, but as the commercial says, “But wait! There’s more!” Matsumoto was named in 2011 as Sake Samurai (Sake Ambassador) from the Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council. In 2012, he became the official Panel Chairman for the International Wine Challenge, London Sake Division.


Q: What exactly is sake?

Yuji Matsumoto: Sake is a fermented alcohol made from rice, just like beer and wine. It is in the same category.

Q: What are the key ingredients to making sake?

YM: The water is very important since it makes up 80 percent of the sake. You have to have a good source of spring water. We do not use tap water. Despite technology, you cannot make good spring water. Sake is a balance of everything: how you process the rice, how you soak the rice, and how you steam the rice.

Q: Since it is in the same category as wine, does sake need to age?

YM: No. Sake should be consumed right after processing. There are, however, high priced aged sakes.

Q: Is there a specific rice used in sake?

YM: The rice, which we use for premium sake in Japan, is only for sake. It is called sake rice. Since the rice in sake is comparable to the grapes in wine, there must be a prime location for growing this specialty. The rice for premium sake is made from the rice in the Kobe area, just like the beef.


Q: Other than the Kobe region in Japan, what other areas produce good sake?

YM: California makes good sake. It’s the technology and also the rice. It has improved. The water is good. They can make the same product 30 to 40 percent cheaper than Japan due to rice prices.

Q: Does sake come in various flavors? What are some of the most popular flavors?

YM: In the United States, I would say the unfiltered sweet ones like citrus and coconut are extremely popular.

Q: How do you know when to warm the sake, and to what temperature?

YM: If the sake is floral, fruity, or sweet, chilling is better. If it is dry and a bit earthy, warm it up. It’s like white and red wine. Just warm the sake a little bit hotter than a hot bath.

Q: How does one become a Master Sake Sommelier?

YM: First you have to become a regular Sommelier. That begins with a knowledge test, and two to three years of experience. For a Master Sake Sommelier, you need a recommendation. You submit your resume. Once they determine you have the experience and are qualified, then you go to Japan for a skill test and presentation.


Q: Wow! You have to take the test in Japan?

YM: I was very lucky they paid for my trip.

Q: What changes have you experienced during your career?

YM: In the United States, the explosion of infused flavors. In Japan, I think the younger generation is starting to drink more sake. Twenty years ago, hardly anyone was drinking sake, even though it’s the national beverage.

Q: How do you determine which sake to select?

YM: The selections are not necessarily my favorites. I try to find the value in the sakes. Let’s say you pay $20. I try to find a sake that tastes $30 to $40.

Q: What is the day-to-day routine?

YM: I go to the store, talk with vendors, train people on cocktails, sake, and I monitor inventory. There are a lot of sake trade shows, so I go there to discover new sakes. One of my favorite events is the sake tour we do twice a year. I go around to about 14 stores during spring and fall. For about $20, you get a ticket for about seven sakes.

Q: What do you suggest as far as sake pairings?

YM: If the sake is bold, or earthy, you go with a rich dish. It goes well with beef, lamb and chocolate.

Q: Can you tell us about some of the sake rituals?

YM: You never pour sake for yourself. Someone will pour for you, and you will pour for them. Events such as New Year’s Eve and weddings will be toasted in Japan with sake, not Champagne!


The Great Takeaway:

The neatest perspective is Yuji Matsumoto’s ability to combine his business background with his natural creativity. As Beverage Director, Matsumoto modifies many traditional cocktails with sake. Drinks such as Saketini and Sakerita are take-offs on the martini and margarita. Flavors for the Saketini include peach, coconut, pomegranate, and lime. The Sakerita is available in strawberry and mint. Perhaps the most popular is his twist on the mojito—the Sakejito.

Shake it Up With the Kabuki Coco Ginger Beer Recipe:

Ty Ku Coconut Nigori Sake – 1.5oz

Bar syrup – .25oz

Ginger beer – 3oz

Fill with Sapporo beer – 6oz

Garnish with an orange twist

Kabuki Japanese Restaurant
1545 N Vine St
Hollywood, CA 90028

About The Author

Never went to the same elementary school twice. Admittedly it was pretty cool always being the new kid. Ruled both Stone Mountain High in Stone Mountain, GA and the San Miguel dorm at UC Santa Barbara during my tenure. After my college freshmen year in Atlanta my Dad was transferred to CA. No way was I staying in the Southeast alone. After all we had lived in almost every Southeastern state. Born in Tennessee. Moved to Alabama. Moved to Florida. Moved to Ohio –definitely out of our element. Moved to Atlanta –Stone Mountain-and amazingly went to the same high school until graduation. Moved to CA in ’75 basically in three locations. Without a doubt the best place and time was as a college student at UC Santa Barbara. Shocker huh? Had the rough experience of living in the dorm. I lived in the eight floor “Penthouse” for two years. One year the room overlooked the campus lagoon where at 6 am the Crew Team would yell “Stroke!” The other year simply overlooked the Santa Barbara coast. Spent far too long in a career without passion but no longer. So here is to living the passion regardless of age.

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