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Get On The Sake Wave

Sake seems to be enjoying a moment in Canada.

Cocktail culture, foodie culture, Instagram culture (if we must call it that)—all are serving up more and more sake, partly at the behest of customers with increasingly sophisticated palates and partly because Canada is now enjoying increased access to top-end products. We’ve even got our own certified Sake Samurai: Michael Tremblay of Toronto’s Ki Modern Japanese was recognized last year by the Junior Council of the Japan Sake Brewers Association in a ceremony in Kyoto. When he started at Ki 13 years ago, Tremblay was a wine geek with no knowledge of sake. He had maybe 20 sakes on the list at the time, and he set about tasting them and compiling his own research materials. He travelled to New York to study with sake expert John Gauntner. A decade and much travel to Japan later, Tremblay is now part of the global sake elite—there are about 70 certified samurais—dedicated to spreading the sake gospel. He now invites local sommeliers to Ki for introductory sake tastings and is working on a book with Nancy Matsumoto, a writer based in Toronto and New York. The list at Ki now tops 70 sakes, plus a few special, unlisted bottles.

Toronto’s sake scene has been building slowly over the past decade. The annual Kampai sake festival originated in the city seven years ago, and is now in its second year in Montreal. Organizers hope to take it to Calgary next year. “We’re looking to come out bigger and stronger in 2020, and it’s exciting because the Olympics in Tokyo will shine a light on all things Japanese,” says Vivian Hatherell, owner of Metropolitan Premium Wines & Sakes and a co-founder of Kampai. She sees an increasingly global palate and curiosity about all things “new” fuelling the sake wave, as well as new sakes coming from non-traditional places such as Oregon and Ontario. As sake consumption is increasing, sake distributors are taking notice. “Canada is now recognized as what they call a preferred nation for sake,” she says. “This means the top six sake distributors worldwide see Canada as a growth market.” The Wine and Spirits Education Trust now runs a sake certification program accessible via the Independent Wine Education Guild in Toronto.

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario launched two East Asia Destination Collection stores, in 2016 and 2017. Ontario sake sales jumped 28 percent in 2017-18, partly due to the opening of the second store. As of fall 2019, Ontario sake sales hit almost $7 million, an increase of about five percent over 2018. Recent restaurant openings with a sake focus include Toronto’s Sakai Bar, run by ex-Black Hoof sake pro Stuart Sakai, and Montreal’s Hanzō Izakaya, which join the established and well-regarded Jatoba in Montreal and Imanishi in Toronto. In Vancouver, sake fans head to Yuwa and Miku.

— DICK SNYDER

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