Jim Clarke: Your interest in the service industry and sake both began while you were living in Japan; how did that come about?
Eric Swanson: Both interests began while bartending in Japan. My Japanese friend owned a bar and I asked if I could bartend on the weekends – the rest is history. Making people happy while taking care of them just felt good.
JC: Why did you return to Japan in 2002 after waiting tables and bartending in New York?
ES: I was on a one-year world tour and wanted to visit friends during the World Cup. I was there during the Winter Olympics and had such a great time; I thought it [the World Cup] would be just as fun and it was.
JC: How did your coworkers in Japan respond to your interest in sake?
ES: They found it only natural. They knew it was a great beverage and were happy to share it.
JC: Is sake connoisseurship in Japan similar to wine knowledge in the U.S.?
ES: Yes and no. There are definitely sake geeks, but there isn’t the elitist side that you find sometimes in the wine world, both in Japan and here. And for one very simple reason: 95% of sake is very affordable in Japan.
JC: How did you and John Gauntner go about putting together Shibuya’s sake list?
ES: MGM asked me who the best was and I said John. They hired him to consult. I wanted a list that was regionally diverse, varied in flavor, and equally distributed between Junmai Ginjo and Dai Ginjo. From his vast knowledge he selected a great list that fit those qualifiers. He also provided the written descriptions of each sake. I wanted descriptions that weren't entirely abstract or esoteric, that would include tangible flavor profiles like chestnuts, peach, apple, pear, and cherry. Something the customer could grasp and appreciate.
JC: You had been studying sake for some time before working with Mr. Gauntner at Shibuya; how did working with him in person change your perspective on sake?
ES: He just gave me a deeper and broader appreciation for the beverage and really rounded out what I already knew and understood. Most importantly, his passion for sake is infectious, and he has definitely passed it on.
JC: Shibuya offers sakes at three temperatures – chilled, room temperature, and warm – how do sakes respond to different serving temperatures?
ES: Sake, like wine or beer, responds differently at different temperatures. Some richer sakes need a little heat to really bring out the full depth of their flavor profile; the way to find out is simply through experience and experimentation.
JC: How do you organize things when training servers about sake?
ES: Teach them the categories: Junmai, Ginjo, Dai Ginjo. Teach them the name, and English and Japanese pronunciation. Talk about the region and the general flavor profile of the region. Finally, go over the flavor profile of the sake itself, accompanied by a tasting and a round table discussion of the sake. Ask about suggested food pairings; if the logic for the food pairing seems solid I let them run with it. There is no right or wrong, just conviction on what they like.
JC: What are the plusses and minuses of using sake in cocktails?
ES: The plus is that a nice, simple sake can be a blank canvas on which you can add many flavors and use as a layer in a drink, not really as the base. The minus is debatable: whether or not it has an effect how people perceive premium sake. In truth, premium sake isn't a mixer; it is best enjoyed on its own. In cocktails, stick to your mass-produced garden-variety sakes.
JC: Most of our readers are familiar with what factors to keep in mind when pairing wine and food – acidity, tannins, etc.; what are the main principles behind pairing food and sake?
ES: It’s all about finding what is complimentary or contrasting that will accentuate the drinking and dining experience. Will the acidity cut through this toro tartar, or should I have something as velvety and rich as the dish? It’s just playing around with all of the dynamics and finding ones I like and I think the customers will like and giving them some kind of tangible reason for the pairing.