Les Pung, the sake dude
Out of nowhere, Les Pung pulls out two small glasses and a bottle of chilled sake. Think of Pung as a sake sommelier. He wanders into Japanese restaurants and convinces the owners that they should carry premium sake—none of that low-quality hot stuff. In essence, he’s the middle-man between the restaurants and the distributors. The curator. He also teaches classes, creates pairing menus, hosts parties and will offer his expertise to random people in the sake aisle of Oto’s Marketplace. Why? He loves sake and wants everyone to drink it. Me included. He pours the fruity, clear-colored rice wine and we clink glasses. Kanpai!
So, what are we drinking?
Tears of Dawn, a daiginjo. A great, easy-to-drink, starter sake. It pairs very well with sashimi, nigiri, light fare to start out the evening. Daiginjo means 50 percent of the rice is milled away. The higher the percent, the more flavorful and the more delicate. … Daiginjo is like the single vineyard reserve equivalent of wine. It’s the best sake one can offer.
With wine, there are special glasses, swirling, smelling and all that. Is there a way you’re supposed to taste sake?
You can have a rocks glass, a wine glass or a ceramic ochoko, those white ones. It doesn’t really matter. The wine glass, however, is my preferred drinking vessel for beginners. You’re so used to swirling wine to get the bouquet going. It’s the same for sake.
What’s the deal with those little wooden boxes?
Like this? (Pulls out a box.) These are called masu boxes. Traditionally, they’re a drinking vessel. Back in the day in Japan, when you had to barter and there was no cash, the farmer who grew rice would take his crop into the market to barter for something else. He’d say, “OK, 10 scoops of rice” for however many pieces of corn. As time went on, the foot soldiers always had one of these as part of their standard issue military gear. Whether they were the victors or the vanquished, they had to drink with the emperor. The whole battalion would toast.
Um. Why do you have that with you?
(Laughs.) I don’t know.
What do you have with you at all times?
I have the wood box, I have [a tasting paddle], I have glasses, I have sake. That’s pretty much it.
First sake encounter?
At Benihana. I was drinking Coors Light—I was totally happy with my Coors Light—but I saw the table next to me drinking sake. So I said, “Bring me the sake.” I’m pouring this hot sake and I’m like, “This is really hot. Whoa.” Instinctively, I’m reaching for my Coors Light, washing it down. I was doing a sake bomb without even knowing what it was. … Later, I told my friend, “I can’t do sake.”
Things sure do change. Do you have an official title?
I’ve been given titles. (Laughs.) I guess, Certified Sake Professional. CSP. That is my business card. I’ve been called a sake ambassador, a sake missionary, a sake evangelist. Everything. Anything. A sake sommelier. The sake dude. The sake guy—that’s much easier.
Does it bother you when people pronounce it “sockee”?
It hurts my ears. Would you pronounce m-e-r-l-o-t as “merlaht”? It hurts my ears just as bad as “sockee.” … It’s pronounced “sah-kay,” like you’d pronounce Sunday.
Do you think sake pairs best with Japanese food?
Sake has reached a point where it can go really well with food other than Japanese cuisine. Would you do French wines with just French food? Or Italian wines with just Italian food? No, it’s come out of that mold. I’ve grilled tri-tip in the backyard drinking sake. … Some Thai restaurants carry cloudy sake because it’s sweet, which complements spicy food.
How many types of sake have you tried?
Is that a trick question?
Um. Close to about 700.
Is that everything on the market?
Far from it. There’s about 1,500 active brewers in Japan today for both domestic and export. Of those, we’d be lucky to get 50 that do export. Some sakes that I’ve tasted, friends just carry back. That’s why I want to go to Japan. The minute the plane hits the tarmac, I’ll go to the duty free store and check the prices. Then I’ll go to grocery stories, or as they call them over there, department stores. The hard part is how to carry all my sake back, legally.
I want to start a little bottle shop with a tasting room on the side. It can be 500 square feet of space. I’ll have all the bottles that people should be drinking. They can buy the bottles, pay the corkage and be happy because they’ll know it’s kickass sake.