Just In 👉 Volcan de mi Tierra Debuts Tahona Made Blanco

Interviews

Elliot Faber: From Sipping Vodka in Russia To Shaping Hong Kong’s Elite Dining

A sip of vodka and a moment of comradeship with a Russian family drew Elliot down the rabbit hole.

 

Sake Samurai Elliot Faber is known widely as a leading sake educator but his expertise and involvement with drinks stretches far beyond the realm of nihonshu.

His influence as a leading tastemaker is unmistakably felt across Hong Kong’s premier F&B spots, where he shaped the beverage programmes of Michelin-starred establishments like Yardbird and Ronin, curating their selection of sake, whisky, shochu, umeshu and wines. Beyond these, he has pioneered celebrated craft drinks venues and brands like Sake Central, Awa Awa and Sunday’s Spirits.

Elliot is also deeply involved in Southeast Asia, working with the glamorous Mandala Club before recently co-founding The Sake Company in Singapore to showcase a diverse range of craft sakes and spirits that are rarely available elsewhere.

This month, amid his bustling schedule, we managed to pin down Elliot for a mini masterclass on food-and-drink pairings worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Elliot shared with us the most important tips for sake appreciation, his thoughts on the regional sake appreciation scene, and some of the most exciting non-Japanesesake breweries to watch in Toronto, New York, London and even Southeast Asia. We’ll also hear about an unforgettable encounter with Russians on a train journey that ignited his burning passion for food and drink.

Let’s speak to Elliot!

Follow Elliot Faber: Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn

Check out the selection on The Sake Company (Singapore): Official Website | Instagram

Also check out: Sunday’s Whisky | Sake Central (HK) | Saketen (HK) | Awa Awa (HK)

“Never try to keep a secret in Hong Kong, someone is always watching and everyone knows something.”

– The advice Elliot received from a close friend and a top Hong Kong restauranteur. 

[88 Bamboo]: Your involvement with drinks is a challenge to sum up, but we’ll try our best! You’ve co-authored a bestselling guide on sakes and were named Sake Samurai by a council of top sake brewers. You’re the founding taste-maker for several top venues like Michelin-starred Yardbird and Ronin, and you’ve gone on to open other popular venues and brands that carry fantastic sake, whisky and Japanese spirits including The Sake Company in Singapore.

It sounds like you’ve been incredibly busy! Could you tell us, how does a day in the life of Elliot Faber look like?

[Elliot]: It’s a tricky thing to explain because each day is wildly different! It does always start with checking in with my wife and daughter. They are my lifeline so whether they are beside me at home or if I’m on the road, I always catch a moment with them first. From there, the agenda varies but you can bet a single day doesn’t go by without giving attention to one of my projects. Usually breakfast is skipped and if I’m lucky I go to the gym but I’ll always find time to film or co-ordinate my daily #sakeaday video. It’s a good snapshot of where I am or what I am doing at that moment. It also shows people you can enjoy sake or other Japan-inspired craft beverages anywhere around the world!

 

Elliot, his wife, Tiffany, and young daughter, Ella (Source: Elliot Faber, Instagram)

 

[88B]: Outside of the realm of F&B, could you share with our readers a passion or skill of yours that few people know about?

[Elliot]: I can eat a marshmallow while it’s on fire, though it hasn’t been too useful lately and I should probably stop doing it! I love exercise and if I can be static in one place, I do commit to a regular gym routine. I also play a little bit of guitar and I love karaoke in Japan or elsewhere!

“…I quickly realised that Hong Kong never sleeps. My favourite dim sum was open from around 3 am. I was immersed in this environment of passionate people from all over the world and when we started working together, there was always something to do.”

[88B]: Your long list of accomplishments reflects a level of passion for drinks that is matched by very few, even in the F&B scene! Do you ever sleep?

Jokes aside, could you share with us what ignited this burning passion? Is there a story you recall from your earlier years that shaped your perspectives, or reinforced your love for drinks and story-telling?

[Elliot]: I know exactly when it started. I was in Russia as a backpacking university student. I had only a few dollars and it was so bad that I had to ask my parents to wire me money to tide me over before I came home. Back then the only real way to get cash to a faraway country was via western union and I actually had to wait a few days for the funds to arrive! It was tough.

 

A sip of vodka and a moment of comradeship with a travelling Russian family drew Elliot down the rabbit hole (Source: Russian Trains)

 

Somebody helped me get on a train from Moscow to St. Petersburg and I was on the overnight train in a 2nd class cabin with a family. I was on the top bunk trying to sleep when the man across offered me a sip of vodka from his beaten metal flask. Of course I had to oblige! Over the course of the night, I tried my best to communicate with him and his two kids. It was a career-driving lesson that drinking (or eating) together brings people together. It is a common theme but experienced first hand in pretty exotic circumstances so from there, I started to realise that everyone had their own drink or food that brought people together. I quickly stumbled into wine in Europe and studied to become a sommelier right after university. From there, I discovered a sake brewery in Vancouver, Canada; learned the ropes, and the rest is history!

 

Russian train passengers passing time playing cards (Source: Telegraph UK)

 

[88B]: You grew up in Toronto and Calgary in Canada, and you’ve lived in Europe before moving to Hong Kong to start the wildly successful Yardbird and a series of other amazing bars and venues. You’ve also spent quite some time in Singapore and Malaysia where your wife, Tiffany, grew up.

The transition sounds like quite the cultural shift! What were your first impressions of living in Asia, and what intrigued or surprised you the most about living in say Hong Kong, Singapore or Malaysia?

[Elliot]: When I came to Hong Kong, my dear friend and Yardbird Hong Kong founder Matt Abergel told me: “Never try to keep a secret in Hong Kong, someone is always watching and everyone knows something”. I quickly realised that he was right and I turned that into an advantage for me. In Canada where I grew up, people tend to work five days a week, 8 hours a day. Everyone takes a break and a holiday and there is this comfort to it all. Even if you wanted to work more, the culture almost forces you take a break. Now that I’m getting older, I’m starting to respect that but, at the time when I arrived in Hong Kong, I quickly realised that Hong Kong never sleeps.

 

The culture and unique energy of Hong Kong left a deep impression on Elliot, who grew up in Canada.

 

I was immersed in this environment of passionate people from all over the world and when we started working together, there was always something to do. My favourite dim sum was open from around 3 am until 2:00 pm or something like that. There were visitors from all over the world who always wanted a glimpse into our Hong Kong world so we would take them out after a great meal and we would introduce them to the members of the community and these members would do the same. There was so much energy to all of it; we took the fact that someone was always watching and we turned it into an opportunity to connect, develop, get inspired and take opportunities that would be coming our way at all hours of the day. I think this is the spark of my drive to work on multiple things with multiple people both here in Hong Kong and around the world - it’s contagious! Now that I’ve started in Singapore with The Sake Company, I can feel that spark here. I love the energy and flexibility of the community and I feel very welcome to join the hustle.

 

Here in Hong Kong, Elliot began his deep collaboration with long-time friend Matt Abergel, who founded a number of highly respected restaurants (Source: Philipp Engelhorn)
 

“Their dedication to story-telling, consistency and innovation is unwavering. At the same time, it is a kind of time capsule that I feel responsible to preserve and raise awareness to.”

– Elliot on Japan’s drinks industry.

[88B]: Having been so deeply involved in the drinks industry of several countries, have you noticed any interesting differences in the drinks scenes across various cultures?

[Elliot]: There is certainly a nuance between countries but I still draw my inspiration from Japan. Their dedication to story-telling, consistency and innovation is unwavering. At the same time, it is a kind of time capsule that I feel responsible to preserve and raise awareness to. I can definitely tell you that there is a drive to do more in the West. I had the chance to visit my family in Canada this summer for the first time since COVID. Not only has the accessibility and quality of talent and projects from this part of the world increased, but there is also an access to a part of the world that isn’t represented here.

“We started The Sake Company as a way to showcase the diversity of the sake world through a specific selection of producers all over Japan... their contrasts are deep and selected to inspire Japanophiles as well as classic non-Japanese sommeliers and chefs who may not consider working with sake traditionally.”

[88B]: Late last year, you co-founded The Sake Company in Singapore along with your partner Max Del Vita. You guys curate a really interesting selection of craft sakes, including some incredible doburoku from Konohanano Brewerywhich we tasted and couldn’t get enough of and a selection of Japanese spirits.

What inspired you to start The Sake Company? Tell us about the main values that guide your curation of the bottles offered by The Sake Company. Are you looking for any specific quality?

[Elliot]: The Sake Company started out of a situation that was well out of my control. I was working with Mandala Club for the launch of their omakase counter Mori for a few months in the middle of 2022. When the project finished in July and it was time to go home, my wife contracted COVID and she was 35 months pregnant. At that time, it was impossible to enter Hong Kong with COVID and so our plans to have our baby in Hong Kong had to immediately shift. I ended up spending around four months longer than I planned, going between Singapore and Malaysia. During that time, I got to know Max who had garnered his sake passion by visiting Sake Central when he had lived in Hong Kong previously. We started to chat, bonded over his Italian heritage and my experience in the sake history and the rest is history!

 

Elliot and a fellow sake lover, Max, doing yet another #sakeaday review on Instagram. Together, they co-founded The Sake Company in Singapore in 2022.
 

We started The Sake Company as a way to showcase the diversity of the sake world through a specific selection of producers all over Japan. Our list of makers is not the deepest, but their contrasts are deep and selected to inspire Japanophiles as well as classic non-Japanese sommeliers and chefs who may not consider working with sake traditionally. We also embrace the concept that all sake can cover any alcohol. We import a very small selection of craft alcohol producers, currently leading the way with Austria’s Fernet Hunter.

 

One of the most unusual drinks brought in by The Sake Company is doburoku made by Konohanano Brewery – a leader in Japan’s craft sake movement. This is a chunky, creamy, ancient precursor of the sake we know today. (Source: As seen at Sake Social)

 

[88B]: You’re the founding Beverage Director at several world-class restaurants in Hong Kong, including Yardbird, Ronin and Sunday’s Grocery where you managed their beverage programmes; their selection of sake, Japanese whisky, shochu, umeshu and wines. It’s safe to say you’re an expert at recommending the best food and drink pairings!

For our readers looking to elevate their dining experiences, could you suggest some standout dishes that would pair wonderfully with several bottles from The Sake Company’s range?

[Elliot]:

Endo Shuzo 'Char de Kock Apple’ pairs with Peruvian Ceviche or Scallop Tataki. The brightness of the sake matches the raw element while the fruity component of the sake will compliment the marinade.

 

 

Konohanano’s Hazy IPA Doburoku pairs with Wagyu Negimaki or Vietnamese Shaking Beef. The grassiness of the spring onion matches the hoppiness in this Doburoku, while the richness of the Doburoku is a perfect vehicle for the wagyu beef in the dish.

 

 

Fernet Hunter Yotei pairs Herbal Bak Kut Teh. The herbs used for the Bak Kut Teh can be complimentary to the botanicals of Fernet Hunter, while the subtle sweetness will match with any spicy or salty element of the dish; Fernet Hunter could be on the rocks or as a Highball with a sprig of Lavender for this pairing.

 

 

Sunday’s Malt & Grain Whisky pairs with anything chocolate. The simple combination of malt and chocolate, with the soft alcohol sensation of Sunday’s Whisky will make you forget you are drinking when enjoyed beside a decadent chocolate dessert! Make an old fashioned with orange peel if there is a citrus element to the chocolate dish.

 

 

[88B]: With thousands of sake brands out there, getting into sake appreciation could feel a bit daunting for a new drinker – especially for those of us who don’t understand Japanese.

How would you guide a new sake drinker to start their exploration of sakes?

[Elliot]: Most important lesson: there is no correlation between price and quality. Sake prices are based largely on the cost of materials, labour and technology - to a degree even more drastic than wine. Try everything and don’t be shy. Focus on the makers with a story that intrigues you and try their whole range. Once you find the style within your favourite maker, then you can branch out and try other styles by different makers. Oh! And don’t be afraid to try sake with all types of cuisine!

 

Elliot’s bestselling book documents what goes on at the most historically significant sake breweries in Japan. This book solidified his reputation as a sake educator, and prompted the Sake Brewers Association to recognise him as a Sake Samurai, a rare honour for influential people who promote and educate others about sake outside of Japan. (Source: Sake Central)

 

[88B]:You began writing your bestselling book “SAKE: The History, Stories, and Craft of Japan's Artisanal Breweries” back in 2013 becausethe sake world has been largely undocumented, and bottle labels are super difficult to understand for non-Japanese people.

Reflecting on your past 10 years as a sake educator, how much progress do you feel has been made in consumer education, and how has the sake appreciation scene evolved?

[Elliot]: The scene is evolving, there are more people overseas than ever who are in support of the sake industry - promoting it in all sorts of ways. I always say there is no such thing as bad publicity in the sake world. I’m in support of all of it, as long as it keeps the conversation going! However, sake is still on the decline in Japan. We need to continue to find a way to encourage the sake industry to thrive INSIDE of Japan, otherwise we won’t have anything to promote.

 

[88B]: Looking ahead, what are some trends in sake that give you the most excitement?

There’s been a rising number of sakes being brewed outside of Japan, and we’ve recently learnt that Konohanano is looking to open Singapore’s first sake brewery. Outside of Japan, are there any countries or breweries that have captured your attention? Would we see any non-Japanese sakes making an appearance in the offerings of The Sake Company or Sake Central?

[Elliot]: You can definitely see a trend in sake breweries being established outside of Japan and while these breweries will never be Nihonshu, they are an important message to the traditional sake makers in Japan. My first real experience in with sake was actually in Canada with the Artisan Sake Maker when I was already on the path to being a Sommelier. I had a general passion and knowledge for alcohol and Shiroki-san opened my mind to sake right then and there. Osake continues to be one of the most important sake breweries in Canada. We have Izumi in Toronto who just took a massive investment from a massive alcohol producer in Japan.

 

Osake is Canada’s first local sake brand, made inGranville Island of Vancouver. There’s also Izumi Brewery in Toronto which was recently backed by Japanese drinks conglomerate Takara Shuzo.
 

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Kura is producing inspiring sake in New York and breweries from Japan such as Hakkaisan and Dassai see this opportunity overseas and are investing in sake production in North American too!

 

Brooklyn Kura, a craft brewery in New York City has formed a capital alliance with the renowned Hakkaisan.
 

Meanwhile we have Kanpai in London and exciting projects throughout Europe. Here in Singapore, I’m proud to announce that The Sake Company will be officially launching their partnership with MÙA, the Vietnam craft sake brewery, later this year and that is just the beginning. I have to give a special shoutout to Konohanano Brewery, a leader in Japan’s Craft Sake movement, for inspiring me to see a world outside of traditional Nihonshu, without forgetting the ancient beverage.

 

Sake brewing has also spring up in Southeast Asia. The Sake Company will soon be launching their partnership with Vietnam’s first craft sake brewery, MÙA. Meanwhile, Konohanano Brewery which specialises in Doburoku has announced plans to set up a craft brewery in Singapore in early 2024, called Orchid Craft Works.

 

[88B]: Your deep involvement with the drinks industry over the years has allowed you to interact with countless interesting people, and taken you to a great deal of places across the world including a hectic tour of 75 alcohol-makers across Japan while you were researching for your book.

What are some of the biggest highlights for you? Could you share one fond memory that you’ve had from this journey?

[Elliot]: To be honest, it is really hard to pinpoint a single moment. The fondest memory is the whole package, the way it all came together into a journey that five of us took literally by plane, train and automobile; sometimes visiting 4 sake breweries in one day. Everyone was so unique and special, so kind and welcome, it is the kind of experience that I don’t know can be duplicated. Many of the makers didn’t want us taking pictures of hanging uniforms, rusted sides of buildings, or wellies all lined up nicely. However, I explained to them that this is the side of the sake world that people would want to see. I’m thankful to the makers for giving me a chance to share a side of their breweries that they previously may not have wanted to show.

 

(Source: Sake Central)

 

[88B]: Finally, if you had the opportunity to put together and share a 3-course meal with any individual who would that person be?

[Elliot]: I’m sure this answer would change at any given time, but of course, right now, it’s my daughter, Ella, and she can’t drink yet - but she will (if she wants). For now, I’d love to make her a ‘baby-steps’ meal where she can discover the key elements behind craft alcohol production:–

Cold Pressed Ripe Aglianico Juice with Aged Comte Courgette [An intro to wine]

 

 

Amazake with Dashi Poached Hokkaido Salmon and butter mushrooms (or maybe a traditional Kasujiru) [An intro to sake]

 

 

Chocolate Malt Ice Cream with Dehydrated Honey Crumble [An intro to beer and mead]

 

 

Most important, we’d make the whole meal together!

 

[88B]: Thank you Elliot for taking the time to share these profound perspectives and experiences around drinks, culture and life in Asia with us! And we must say, your food and drink pairings are some of the most well-thought-out combinations we’d only expect at top-notch restaurants. Cheers to many more flavourful adventures!


Follow Elliot Faber: Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn

Check out the selection on The Sake Company (Singapore): Official Website | Instagram

@CharsiuCharlie