Boston’s first sake bar has deeply personal roots
Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale reads a letter to every new employee who comes to work for her.
“The main line that I’m proud of is, ‘just because something doesn’t sound familiar doesn’t mean it’s bad,'” DiPasquale reads.
The words are part of a love letter – written to herself at age 14. They are also a driving force behind his new venture called The Koji Club, Boston’s first sake bar, which finally opened on February 10. It is named after one of the four ingredients of sake. Koji is sprinkled on rice to turn its starch into sugar, which works with yeast to produce the drink’s alcohol.
For DiPasquale, his goal is to demystify the drink, making it as accessible as wine or whisky.
“Not only do we have a problem where sake needs an explanation, but it also needs a reintroduction because sake tastes so delicious,” says DiPasquale. “We are trying to kind of break the reputation of sake that [it] it’s complicated because it’s a bit easy. I think what’s complicated is discovering the incredible range of flavors and colors that sake comes in and finding the one you like.
DiPasquale found her love for sake in her twenties when she worked for Boston’s famous Japanese restaurant, O Ya. She went from host to manager, while trying and learning all about sake. She was also teaching others all about the drink, both as a way to make friends, but also to spread a more accessible way of learning about the drink that was quickly becoming an obsession for her.
“I really wanted to create a space where anyone who wanted to find out what their favorite glass of sake is could go through this discovery process guided by someone who really loves the drink.”
Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale
“I feel like a lot of the sake education that’s out there now, exists as a B2B [business to business] sense, where it’s the importers educating the retailers or the restaurant owners and then playing the phone to reach the customers,” says DiPasquale. “And I really wanted to create a space where anyone who wanted to find out what their favorite glass of sake is could go through this discovery process guided by someone who really loves the drink.”
And when she says love, she means it. DiPasquale is an advanced sake professional, meaning she went to Japan to study the drink for a week-long course and exam. Not only is she one of the few women in America to do so, but she is only one of the few people in the United States to win the title. It’s a dedication born out of love for love – and love for herself.
DiPasquale is half Japanese. She says drinking and learning sake brought her closer to her Japanese roots, something she missed growing up in New England.
“Having the opportunity to learn more about Japanese culture and customs and sake helps me learn more about myself and where I come from, and the parts of Japanese culture that are so inherent to my interests…my mother’s traditions,” says DiPasquale.
DiPasquale nurtured his passion for sake for over a decade with Cushman Concepts, the company that owns O Ya. All the while, she taught others about sake and even helped open O Ya restaurants in New York and Mexico. At the end of February 2020, she finally decides to leave alone. She gave her opinion on the goal of opening Boston’s first sake bar. Then the pandemic hit. DiPasquale put his original brick-and-mortar plans on hold. That summer, she began hosting monthly virtual tastings, first for friends, then for strangers who would eventually become friends.
It wasn’t ideal, but it laid the groundwork, she says.
“If we did this virtually for a while, possibly when we unlock the door to the sake bar, people would know what they like,” DiPasquale says. “They can come and explore, can’t they?” And it was like speeding up the discovery process for people so that with this really strong vision of wanting to open a futures bar, we already had a community.
Two years after stepping down, DiPasquale’s dream is now a reality at Brighton’s brand new Charles River Speedway. Enter Koji and you will see a small L-shaped bar and a few tables, all of which can seat up to 16 people in total.
The menu offers dozens of hand-picked sakes. Sake is made from only four ingredients, but brewers can modify these ingredients to change the taste, DiPasquale explains. For example, there are different types of sake rice and using each produces different flavors and colors. One of DiPasquale’s favorite sakes right now is made from red sake rice, which produces sake with a rosy tint and fruity flavors. Likewise, the taste changes depending on the water used. DiPasquale says sake brewed near an ocean tastes different from sake brewed in the mountains of Japan, where the water is purer.
Order a single serving of sake from Koji and you’ll get it in a wine glass rather than a traditional ochoko, an intentional choice by DiPasquale.
“Having the opportunity to learn more about Japanese culture and customs and sake helps me learn more about myself and where I’m from…”
Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale
“Because we’re a place where we want you to find your favorite drink, we wanted you to enjoy it in a glass,” says DiPasquale. “We have ochoko here…because it’s traditional if you order a bottle. But the thing is, you see the glasses and you feel like you’re in a wine bar, and the only thing we traded was the liquid inside the glass. This adds to the comfort level of service style you can expect when you come here, although we offer something very different.
If you get hungry, there’s a small menu of dishes to browse, including rice and pickles, and a cheese plate for one. All under the rim of a blue roof permanently attached to the wall above the bar.
“This roof is an exact replica of the roof that was above the bar at my family’s restaurant in Denver, the 20th Street Cafe,” says DiPasquale. “It belonged to my great-grandparents, then to my grandparents, then to my uncle and my aunt. It closed in 2020 due to the pandemic…I opened my SARL [for Koji] in 2020, so it’s like a little sequel.
Currently, Koji is open for limited hours Wednesday through Saturday. Eventually, once the weather warms up, Koji will open his patio, complete with a disco ball. DiPasquale also offers paid sampling classes on Sundays, where people can try sake in a more intimate setting. But whether it’s one-on-one or just dropping by the bar, DiPasquale just wants you to explore, like she did.
“My sincere hope is that everyone comes in and finds the drink they love so they can go back to their favorite Japanese restaurants and explore it more with food, or even buy bottles from their liquor stores. favorites,” says DiPasquale.