When you think of the Basque Country in northern Spain, sake is unlikely to spring to mind.

According to government statistics, exports of Japanese sake to Spain amounted to 154,159 liters in 2017 — a mere drop in the bucket compared to 5.8 million liters to the U.S., sake’s largest overseas market. However, that hasn’t stopped sommelier Guillermo Cruz from embarking on an ambitious plan to create “the world’s best sake list” at Mugaritz, a progressive two-Michelin-starred restaurant located in a tiny mountain village 10 kilometers south of San Sebastian.

The team has been experimenting with sake since 2010, but last year, Cruz worked with sake educator and consultant Natsuki Kikuya to select 60 varieties that pair with chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s relentlessly innovative and provocative cuisine. Mugaritz now stocks 90 kinds of sake — an impressive number, even by Tokyo standards — and Cruz will expand the list next year. The challenge, says Kikuya, is to find brews that serve as “an inspirational key” that can highlight the more abstract aspects of beverage pairing.

“Each sake has to have a philosophy and context that can harmonize with the dishes,” she explains.

Storytelling has always been important in the world of food, but Mugaritz pushes this concept further. The restaurant, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, is famous for avant-garde signatures such as smoked lamb veiled in a “fur” cultivated from fermented beans, and eel mousse served with an edible fork made of sugar — a reference to the middle ages, when sugar was a rare and expensive condiment used in savory dishes. The staff explains the background of each course in painstaking detail. If umami is the fifth taste, then imagination is the sixth sense that illuminates the dining experience at Mugaritz.

“We love the concept of time because it is the greatest luxury. In a way, we are serving history,” Cruz says, referring to both the kitchen’s anthropological approach to cuisine and the beverage team’s penchant for vintage wine pairings. Sake, he continues, is a match for the food because “you can feel the history of generations doing the same thing year after year” to create a product that “represents a culture.”

Last month, I had the chance to test this premise when I traveled to neighboring Bilbao for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony, where Mugaritz came in at number nine.

As at many fine dining restaurants, sake was served with one of the courses. But, as a twist, Cruz presented three brews with the same dish — an all-white composition of hake and sea cucumber afloat in a gelatinous broth that was intended to evoke a blank canvas (but, disconcertingly, looked like amniotic fluid).

The multiple pairing was a brilliant idea. The subtle flavor of the hake allowed the character of each sake to shine, while the silky texture complemented their luscious umami-richness. The dish came with a cup of fermented asparagus juice to reset the palate between sips. Urakasumi Hiyaoroshi Tokubetsu Junmai-shu — a sake from Miyagi Prefecture pasteurized only once — had a rounded mouthfeel with gentle acidity, a touch of freshness and mineral in the finish. Jikon Junmai Ginjo Omachi, made with Omachi rice in Mie Prefecture, was seductively sweet and full-bodied, while Urakasumi Junmai Daiginjo, made with Yamada Nishiki rice, was lean and elegant with hints of pineapple and green apple.

Usually, Cruz serves as many varieties as possible with the same course — for example, last year’s menu featured fermented black rice, accompanied by four kinds of aged sake — and gives diners time to sample the brews on their own.

“We have an extra responsibility to teach people because it may be their first time trying sake. That means you have only one chance to make them fall in love with it,” he says. So far, it’s a winning strategy.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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