Vegas sake sommelier Eric Swanson bans the bomb.
Wine X: Nickname, age, marital status, zodiac sign, dog of choice?
Eric Swanson: Froggy, but haven’t heard it since I was six. 33. Married. Taurus. Big mutt.
WX: When exactly did the sake obsession begin, and how was it nurtured?
ES: When I first went to Japan, in 1996, and found out sake was more than just hot moonshine. I bartended there for four years. I listened to - and occasionally still listen to - my (Japanese) wife’s expertise on the subject. The icing on the cake was training with my mentor, John “Mr. Sake” Gauntner.
WX: Who crowned you the Sake Sommelier? Did you get a crown and scepter? Do you have groupies?
ES: John Gauntner bestowed the title on me. No crown, but I did have a hangover the next day. And yes, I have groupies, but they’re men in their forties. Not something I usually brag about.
WX: Sake, in four words or less.
ES: Rice with good karma.
WX: Stellar foods for which you might swap wine or beer for sake.
ES: Actually, beer and sake are great together. Pair a nice clean lager with a great Junmai shu and some snacks. With Thai food, try Rihaku Ginjo - it has a nice nuttiness and great acidity.
WX: Are there some edibles you wouldn’t pair sake with? Jell-O mold, for instance?
ES: Sake and Jell-O would rock, I think. Perhaps a nice lime Jell-O with apple and banana inside, paired with some Yonetsuru Ginjo.
WX: Did they ever have an Iron Chef featuring sake? Did they call you?
ES: They probably have, because it’s such an essential part of Japanese cooking. When I met [former Iron Chef Japanese] Morimoto, he scolded me for shaking his hand too hard.
WX: Do you prefer your sake straight or in a cocktail?
WX: What’s the basic difference between U.S.-brewed sake and Japanese (imported) sakes? Is that basic four buck grocery store sake plonk?
ES: Ozeki makes a decent domestic Ginjo, on par with some sakes produced in Japan. But most domestically produced sake pretty much sucks because it’s mass-produced...same as most domestic wine was thirty or forty years ago.
WX: So, hot or cold? Is there a thou-shalt-not, or is that sake snobbery?
ES: The stereotype in the U.S. is drink good sake cold, drink bad sake hot. There’s some truth to that. Most good sake is best served cold or gently chilled. If you take cheap sake and heat it, it rounds out the hard edges. However, richer sakes come to life at room temperature, with gentle warmth. Experience and experimentation will help you find the temperature where the sake’s flavors peak.
WX: Sake bombs: yes or no?
ES: Absolutely not!! Sake bombs were conceived on a false premise - that sake is going to kick your ass. In truth, sake has an average alcohol content of 15 to 16 percent. If you add 1 oz. of sake (at 16 percent alcohol) toÊ12 oz. of beer (at 6 percent alcohol) you’ll end up with 13 oz. of under-carbonated beer at 6.8 percent alcohol. If you want to get drunk, just drink the beer fast. Don’t abuse the sake. Now, beer and sake side by side is great.
WX: Your Miss America message to the world about sake.
ES: Sake isn’t one-dimensional; it has many faces. Go out and try premium sakes like Junmai, Ginjo, Daiginjo. Try them side by side and with different foods. Most importantly, don’t take it too seriously. It’s a drink to be enjoyed.
Recipes and images courtesy of Eric Swanson/MGM Grand