Olivia Atkinson sits down with the head sommelier of Auckland restaurant MASU to talk sake, whisky and ‘Salty Dogs’
On any night of the week, central Auckland restaurant MASU hums with the sound of sizzling robata grills and excited diners, eager to dive into the restaurant’s contemporary offerings.
Since it opened in the Federal St dining precinct in October 2013, chef Nic Watt has consistently delivered world-class Japanese cuisine with an edge. Joining him at the helm is Meg Abbott-Walker, the head sommelier who catapulted MASU into the vibrant sphere of Japanese beverages.
Meg spends her evenings managing a vast array of drinks, including cocktails, shochu tonics and cleansers. Sake, however, is where her passion lies.
“There’s a really nice Japanese saying: ‘Sake never fights with food’. It’s not a high acidic beverage. It has a beautiful kind of balance and harmony. The flavours have a subtle delicacy to them and often you find that in Japanese food as well.”
On average, the alcohol content of sake (a fermented rice beverage) is between 14 and 17 per cent. It can also be as low as five per cent, while a genshu or undiluted sake sits at around 20 per cent.
Sake is designed for sipping, so any budding aficionados will need to pace themselves through MASU’s beverage menu: around 40 sake are divided into different sections, loosely based on flavour profiles.
Each sake is served in 70-75ml glasses and, as with wine matching, diners can try a different type with each course.
“Our menu starts with crisp, feminine styles then moves into medium-bodied, expressive sakes and finishes with smoother, bolder, earthier flavours.”
The majority of MASU’s sake falls into the tokutei meisho-shu category or the top 20 per cent of premium sake. While it’s often believed sake should be served warm, Meg explains that the complexity of premium sake can be lost when heated.
“It’s almost like buying a really beautiful bottle of Burgundy Pinot Noir and using it for mulled wine,” she says. “It’s being open to trying different temperatures so you can figure out where it has its most expression.”
Brandon Walker, Meg’s husband and MASU bar manager, has developed an extensive mental catalogue of cocktail recipes over the years, and ‘Salty Dog’ is one of Meg’s favourites.
“It’s basically a gin grapefruit with a little bit of salt. Salt is one of Brandon’s favourite ingredients, so we use it quite a bit in drinks here and at home.”
The couple’s own liquor cabinet hosts a variety of spirits, with Japanese whisky getting shelf space too: “There are fruity, softened styles but also ones that hark back to Scottish whisky with a peaty and savoury taste”, says Meg.
“You can get more and more Japanese whisky in New Zealand now, and there is definitely a growing interest. ”
The Japanese aren’t afraid of drinking and, in turn, Meg isn’t afraid of bringing a slice of Japanese drinking culture to Auckland. “That’s partly why we have such a big offering here at MASU – to display the amazing range of different Japanese beverages.”