Michael Tremblay: What It Takes to Win the Highest Sake Honour
Michael Tremblay never dreamed that he’d become a “sake samurai” when he started working at Ki Modern Japanese + Bar in Toronto 13 years ago. It isn’t a job title the restaurant made up. Nor is it an honour that Tremblay applied for; rather, it’s bestowed by the Junior Council of the Japan Sake Brewers Association on a handful of people—both Japanese and non-Japanese—from around the world each year. The induction ceremony involves wearing a specially fitted kimono at an ancient Shinto shrine in northwestern Kyoto. “It’s one of the most surreal experiences ever,” says Tremblay, who’d witnessed Shinto ceremonies before but had never been part of one.
His duty, along with his fellow 70 or so samurai, is to continue spreading the love of sake. When Tremblay started at Ki, however, he was much more into wine. “To be honest, I’d never had sake before,” confesses the man who has now tasted more than 5,000 of them—thanks in part to being a senior judge at the International Sake Challenge, the largest sake challenge in the world.
Tremblay’s path to sake was a winding one. After finishing a masters in music composition at York University, he headed to Halifax and took a job as a bartender, becoming interested in wine through his oenophile boss. When he returned to Toronto, he took wine courses with the International Sommelier Guild and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), becoming a sommelier and later a WSET instructor.
But sake was still a largely unknown and misunderstood entity. “Like most people, my stereotype was cheap, warm sake,” he says. There wasn’t much available in Toronto at the time. But Ki had more than 20 sakes on the list, an impressive feat back then (it now has one of the biggest lists in Canada), and his curiosity was piqued. He got lucky eight years ago when a bar manager at the restaurant heard about sake expert John Gauntner’s Sake Professional Course Level 1 in New York and the restaurant sent both of them.
Upon his return, Tremblay took over the education program at Ki and later became the wine and sake sommelier. He took more classes, including the Sake Professional Course Level 2 in Japan, which no one from Canada had taken at that point, and the WSET Sake Level 3 (there wasn’t a Level 1 at the time and still isn’t a Level 2), which he went on to teach.
Toronto’s sake import scene has grown exponentially since Tremblay’s first sip. “There are 200 sakes I could bring onto my list if I wanted, and a lot of those are available regularly,” he says.
Thousands of sakes later, he’s still passionate and curious about the drink. He’s even co-writing a book about it. “I’ve never met a beverage that was more food-friendly,” he says. “I love Daiginjo, where you get this beautiful melon, apple, green banana quality, but I also love the cereal-driven sakes, like a Kimoto Junmai that has more of that steamed rice, almost like a nut quality, like a riper banana. You can have fun with the temperature of it,” he explains.
He also loves aged sake, or koshu, with its caramel, mushroom, sherry, dried fruit, meaty, and soy sauce qualities. And he recently brought back from Japan a bottle of Sakura Muromachi made with heirloom Omachi rice, the oldest rice strain in Japan for sake. It’s a notoriously finicky rice to work with in an already labour-intensive brewing process—one Tremblay understands well, having worked at a handful of breweries including Hakkaisan, Nakashimaki-zo, and Oomuraya, which sells the well-known Wakatake brand.
“Wakatake means ‘young bamboo’ in Japanese,” he explains, slipping back into sake instructor mode. “The idea is you drink their sake and you go on a straight path.” While Tremblay’s own path is admittedly less winding than it used to be, he’s still up for the occasional pit stop for a refreshing drink.
For International Sake Day on October 1, Tremblay will be serving a special tasting flight at Ki Modern Japanese + Bar featuring bottles from his latest trip to Japan. He’ll be teaching WSET Level 1 in Montreal on October 9, the day before he presents a talk at the second annual Kampai Montreal tasting event. Then he’ll teach WSET Level 1 in Toronto on October 19, followed by a three-day Regional Sake workshop October 21 to 23 at Brooklyn Kura.
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