Nancy Cushman’s passion for sake was sparked after her first sake experience, when she became fascinated with it and made studying the beverage her mission.
She completed the Sake Professional Course in Japan with John Gauntner, who is recognized as the world’s foremost sake expert. Nancy, along with her husband Tim, then opened O Ya, a contemporary Japanese restaurant in Boston and New York City, where she implements her sake expertise. She is also co-founder of Covina and Roof at Park South Hotel in New York City.
What is your background in the industry?
I was in advertising for over a decade and fell in love with sake during my advertising days. I first tried sake over twenty years ago on a first date with now husband and business partner, Chef Tim Cushman. I fell in love with both. Sake was an obsession and a hobby. Then we got serious about opening O Ya restaurant (2007) and sake became part of my profession – lucky for me!
How does one become an expert in sake?
Like any beverage, it’s about tasting, tasting, tasting as much and as often as possible. My first note in my sake journal from two decades ago was “awesome.” That was before I had a vocabulary to describe it, but I knew I loved it. The more you taste, the more you taste. And then of course formal training with certifications and working in the restaurants serving sake and talking about it night after night.
What would you like bartenders to know about sake?
I encourage other beverage professionals to consider sake for their beverage lists outside of Japanese cuisine or bars. It’s very versatile and growing in interest and popularity. I am not a big fan of premium sake mixing into cocktails as the brewers go to great lengths to coax delicate flavors that are lost, so if mixing sake, best to use a “house” sake that doesn’t need to be sipped to be appreciated. But any way that we can get people to drink more sake, please go for it.
What is your favorite part about working with sake?
I love turning people on to sake. Good sake. There is so much great sake out there now and it’s fun to introduce it or reintroduce it to people who may have tried it before and not liked it. When you see someone take a bite of food that they really like and their eyes light up – that’s the reaction I like to see when they taste a sake they like. Especially when they think they weren’t going to.
What are you predictions for the future of sake?
I think sake will become more recognized for it’s long, long history, but also become more relevant and consumed and talked about today for its versatility and beauty. There is so much to explore once you start exploring it.
What is your favorite sake?
Not a fair question. Like anything it also depends on the day, time, mood, season. On the whole, I definitely prefer premium sake categories – daiginjo, ginjo, junmai types – vs. less refined “table” sake. Today maybe I feel the inspiration of apple picking season and the fall so I’ll go with something fruit forward – Yuki no Bosha Junmai Ginjo – but tomorrow when I’m eating pizza I may feel like Shichi Hon Yari Junmai. Anything in the junmai category, perhaps as we move into the heartier fall and winter months. But I haven’t really met a sake I didn’t like.