Originally from Tauranga, on the North Island of New Zealand, Wayne Shennen first came to Tokyo in 2002 for martial arts. He became a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and came second in the New Zealand Sommelier of the Year competition in 2017.
After picking up numerous other qualifications and awards, he moved to Japan permanently in 2018 and has worked in the hospitality sector ever since. Now 47, he has worked in sake breweries in Ishikawa, Saga, and Gifu prefectures, authored the e-book Demystifying Sake and regularly works with the Japanese Sake and Shochu Makers’ Association to promote Japan’s most famous alcoholic drink. He also owns the Rangitoto Tokyo New Zealand wine and craft sake bar, close to Ochanomizu Station in central Tokyo.
As a classically trained wine sommelier, what is it that attracts you to Japanese sake?
The first time I came to Japan, I didn’t try sake because I “knew” that I didn’t like it. I’d tried it in Australia and it wasn’t good. It was only when I tried some good sakes here that I realized how much I’d been missing out on. And a lot of people have a similar experience. Japan’s sake brewers work so hard for so much of the year that I feel it’s up to people like me at front of house to help them. A lot of what I do now is representing the sake brewers that can’t do that side of the business for themselves.
It’s up to me to match their food choices with the right sake and working with chef Trevor Blyth gives me the opportunity to take the customer by surprise. That is the holy grail of a restaurant and something that a customer will remember for years to come. If I can take someone by surprise, then that is the pinnacle of hospitality and the best way to change perceptions.
Is sake sometimes "misunderstood" in other countries?
Yes, absolutely. There are multiple reasons, but the bottom line is that sake is just about the most versatile drink you can offer when it comes to food matching.
Much of the problem dates back to the 1930s, when the government ordered brewers to change the way they made sake for tax purposes, creating a sake-like drink. And that is the drink that the rest of the world had access to for a long time. It’s not real sake and it’s often not very good.
But that has changed in recent years and the sake manufacturers’ association is working very hard to explain about real sake. And it has gotten to the point here in Japan that the good stuff is even available in convenience stores. They are changing the perception that sake is an acquired taste.
How are you going about educating palates?
I always say that everybody likes sake, they just don’t know it. A lot of it is about challenging people about why they say they don’t like it. I can do that simply by getting them to taste it. Too often people are intimidated and just don’t think they will enjoy it.
Sake can basically use the same descriptors as wine and when people try it, they can use the same words to express what they’re tasting. That means that people already have a basic understanding of the drink. I tell them to treat sake the same as wine. Use wine words and taste it in the same manner.
It doesn’t have to be complicated; if you taste a sake and you like it, move on to something that is similar or from another brewery and just keep expanding your knowledge.
What are some of the elements to look out for in a really good sake?
Look for a “special designation” label on the bottle and you will know it has been made to a certain specification. Try the taste for balance and complexity, and ask yourself if you want another sip.
It’s fairly hard to find bad sake if you look out for these words—honjozo, junmai, and ginjo. If you see ginjo, then you can assume it’s likely to be smooth and refreshing.
What is the outlook for sake beyond Japan?
There are a lot of opportunities for sake. The makers’ association has teamed up with the International Sommeliers’ Association to actively teach sommeliers about sake, so a sommelier can quickly read a customer and make a decision on what that person would like. And that is how they can pass on their passion.
Domestically the Japanese industry has been contracting because mass-produced sakes are becoming less popular. But on the other hand, craft sakes are growing, including in the US, Europe, and Australia.
Sake is part of Japan’s “soft power” and the Japanese don’t realize how much curiosity there is around sake. But people are starting to learn and the outlook is extremely positive.