Birdie Yang, 33, is a sake evangelist—and he wants to make the rice-based alcoholic beverage a staple in Charlotteans’ dining experiences. Enjoy a meal at one of his four restaurants—Baku, YAMA, Yama Izakaya, and a new YAMA location coming soon to the new Waverly development—and you can order from one of the largest sake collections in the Southeast, with bottles ranging from $18 to $1,500. But, to most consumers, sake is still foreign. Here’s what Yang had to say about it.
What are some Sake misconceptions?
Everybody thinks it’s some kind of high-alcohol vodka that doesn’t taste good or is served hot. Hot sake is typically the most inexpensive sake. You heat it up so you can mask the imperfections.
When did you get interested in the finer side of sake?
I was having dinner at a sushi restaurants, and typically I would drink beer. I tried sake and thought, “This is really good.” Then, whenever I would travel, I would try a different sake. It became a habit. I started the chase.
So, you have a Level II sake certification—one of fewer than 200 people in the world with it. How hard was it to get that?
About eight years ago, I looked up the top guy in the sake world, John Gauntner. I took his introductory class in 2010 in New York. A few years later, I continued and took his second course in Japan. He only selects 19 people a year. It’s similar to a master sommelier class.
How did you prep for the blind-tasting test?
That month, I didn’t eat anything spicy. Barely any salt. My wife and my partners would each pick out a sake, it would be wrapped in paper bag, and I would have to tell them what kind of sake it is and where it’s from.
What’s your ‘give it a try’ pitch for a sake newbie?
There’s a sake for everybody. It’s brewed like a beer but enjoyed like a wine. There are very clean and crisp sakes that almost taste like flavored water. If you like heavier, more viscous, full-bodied, there’s a sake for those. Buy something within $20 to $30 and you can’t go wrong.