For saké’s sake

Association Saké Québec president Alexis Bertrand on the first edition of the festival and where to find great saké in Montreal.

The first ever Kampaï Montréal Saké Festival is happening this evening at Studio Mile-End. Kampaï is the flagship event of the Association Saké Québec, a non-profit group of 10 private saké importers in the province. The demand for the wine and its popularity with the public is pretty apparent when considering that this year’s edition is already sold out, with the ASQ hoping to make this event an annual one. We spoke with ASQ president Alexis Bertrand about the festival and accessing good saké in Montreal.

Robert Jennings: How did you get involved with the Association Saké Québec and the Festival du saké?

Alexis Bertrand: I fell in love with Japanese food culture when I was a kid because of a movie called Tampopo — if you love Japanese food, or any food, you need to see that movie. As an adult I discovered saké and fell in love for a second time. Since 2010, I’ve been running the only saké tasting club in Quebec: Ochoko, club des amateurs de saké de Québec.

I was eager to learn more about saké-making so I went to Japan in 2012 and 2014 to attend a professional saké course offered by John Gauntner, who’s the author of six books on the subject, where I got an Advanced Saké Expert Certification.

In 2015, along with my business partner Délane Ethier, who’s also a fan of Japanese culture, I’ve started l’Eau et le Riz, my own import agency specializing in unique artisanal saké.

RJ: How did you come up with the idea for Kampaï Montréal?

AB: We were inspired by an event called Kampaï Toronto that has been very successful over a couple of years. I have been attending this event every year since the beginning and was dreaming of having the same in Montreal.

Two years ago, the founding members of the ASQ (l’Eau et le Riz, Saké Import, 3G General Group and Ozawa Canada) met at a lunch meeting at the Japanese Consulate’s house in Montreal. We all agreed on the necessity of working together to promote saké awareness in the province. Months passed before we got an invitation from Sylvie Ménard, a Montreal-based wine consultant. She had been asked by Masa Shiroki, a pioneer Vancouver saké maker, to find people to promote the creation of a saké association in Quebec.

Things just seemed to fall into place for the creation of the ASQ with the goal to organize the first Kampaï in Montreal.

RJ: How has the popularity of saké in Quebec changed over the past years?

AB: Saké’s popularity has been increasing constantly in the province in the past decade. The problem is that good saké is still hard to find. Hopefully, this will change. Thanks to all of the new Japanese restaurants and with the help of private import agencies, there have never been as many sakés to try in Montreal as there are today. Kampaï Montreal is sold out, so I think that we can say without a doubt that Montreal is ready for more.

RJ: Do you have any recommendations for trying great saké in Montreal? How does the selection at the SAQ compare to what is available in restaurants? Will there be products at the festival that the public can’t access elsewhere?

AB: The SAQ still has a limited selection, even if it is getting better. There is a lot more to be found with private importation, so your best choice is to try sakés at restaurants. Here are some of the restuarants that have good saké lists: Blossom Bar, which is the only saké bar in Montreal, Jun I, Jatoba, Marusan and Kyo. There will be mostly private import products presented at Kampaï this year, mostly hard to find, like some nama (unpasteurized) sakés which is almost unseen in the province at the moment.

RJ: What can attendees expect at this inaugural edition? Any highlights or recommendations?

AB: Lots of delicious sakés to try, more than 150 varieties, and many exclusive products from private import companies. There will also be great Japanese food to pair with it from three great Japanese restaurants from Montreal: Schlouppe Bistrot Nakamichi, Marusan and Nozys. They can expect a very fun evening of discovery, plus music from a local DJ and Taiko drumming. ■

Kampaï Montréal Sake Festival takes place at Studio Mile-End (6250 Hutchison, 5th floor) tonight, Thursday, Oct. 25, 5-8 p.m. Tickets are sold out.