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Boston's first sake bar has deeply personal roots

Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale, owner of The Koji Club. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale, owner of The Koji Club. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale reads a letter to every new employee who comes to work for her.

“The main line that I’m proud of says: ‘just because something does not look familiar does not mean it is bad,’” reads DiPasquale.

The words are part of a love letter — written to her 14-year-old self. They are also a driving force behind her new venture called The Koji Club, Boston’s first sake bar, which finally opened Feb. 10. It’s named after one of four ingredients in sake. Koji is sprinkled on rice to turn its starch to sugar, which works with yeast to produce the drink’s alcohol.

For DiPasquale, her goal is to demystify the beverage, making it as approachable as wine or whiskey.

“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’re trying sort of to break the reputation of sake that [it] is complicated because it’s kind of easy. I think what is complicated is to experience the incredible range of flavors and colors that sake come in and find the one that you love.”

DiPasquale found her love for sake in her 20s when she worked for acclaimed Boston Japanese restaurant O Ya. She moved her way up from host to manager, along the way 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 approachable way to learn about the beverage that was quickly becoming an obsession for her.

"I really wanted to create a space where everyone who wanted to discover what their favorite glass of sake is could go through that discovery process guided by someone who truly loves the beverage."

Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale

“I feel like a lot of sake education that currently exists, exists in like a B2B [business to business] sense, where it’s importers who are educating retailers or restaurant people and then that plays telephone to get to guests,” says DiPasquale. “And I really wanted to create a space where everyone who wanted to discover what their favorite glass of sake is could go through that discovery process guided by someone who truly loves the beverage.”

And when she says loves, 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 only few women in America to do so, she’s only one of a handful of people period in the states to earn the title. It’s a dedication that’s born of love for sake — and love for herself.

DiPasquale is half Japanese. She says drinking and learning about sake brought her closer to her Japanese roots, something she missed growing up in New England.

“Having the opportunity to learn about Japanese culture and customs and sake helps me learn about myself and where I came from, and parts of Japanese culture that are so inherent in my interests … my mom’s traditions,” says DiPasquale.

DiPasquale fostered her passion for sake for over a decade with Cushman Concepts, the company that owns O Ya. Throughout that time, she taught others about sake and even helped open O Ya restaurants in New York and Mexico. In late February 2020, she finally decided to set off on her own. She gave her notice with the goal of opening Boston’s first sake bar. Then the pandemic struck. DiPasquale put her 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 a foundation, she says.

“Sake Steve” Connolly serves a patron from behind the bar at The Koji Club. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
“Sake Steve” Connolly serves a patron from behind the bar at The Koji Club. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“If we did this virtually for a while, eventually when we unlock the door to the sake bar, people will know what they like,” says DiPasquale. “They can come and explore, right? And it was like expediting the discovery process for people so that with this very strong vision of wanting to open a bar eventually, we would have a community already.”

Two years after quitting, DiPasquale’s dream is now a reality at Brighton’s newly developed Charles River Speedway. Walk into Koji and you’ll see a small L-shaped bar and a few tables, all of which can fit up to 16 people total.

The menu features dozens of hand-picked sakes. Sake is made up of only four ingredients, but brewers can alter those ingredients to change the taste of it, says DiPasquale. 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 a sake with a pinkish hue and fruity flavors. Similarly, 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 water is more pure.

Order a single serving of sake at 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 about Japanese culture and customs and sake helps me learn about myself and where I came from..."

Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale

“Because we’re a place where we want you to find your favorite glass, we wanted you to enjoy it in a glass,” says DiPasquale. “We do have ochoko here … because that is traditional if you order a bottle. But the point is that you get to see the glasses and that you feel like you’re in a wine bar, and sort of the only thing that we swapped out was the liquid inside the glass. That adds to the level of comfort to the service style you can expect when you come in here, even though we’re pouring you something very different.”

If you’re hungry, there’s a small food menu to look through, including rice and pickles, and a cheese plate for one. All of this under the edge of a blue roof permanently affixed to the wall above the bar.

“This roof is an exact replica of the roof that was over the back bar at my family’s diner in Denver, the 20th Street Cafe,” says DiPasquale. “It was owned by my great grandparents and then my grandparents, and then my uncle and aunt. It closed in 2020 due to the pandemic … I opened my LLC [for Koji] in 2020, so it’s like a little continuation.”

Right now, Koji is open for limited hours Wednesday through Saturday. Eventually, once the weather warms up, Koji will open up its patio, complete with a disco ball. DiPasquale is also offering ticketed sampling classes on Sundays, where people can try sake in a more intimate setting. But whether through one on one, or just stopping by the bar, DiPasquale just wants you to explore, like she has.

“My sincere hope is that everyone comes in and finds the glass that they love so that they can go back to their favorite Japanese restaurants and explore it further with food, or even to buy bottles at their favorite liquor stores,” says DiPasquale.

Related:

Amanda Beland Twitter Producer/Director
Amanda Beland is a producer and director for Radio Boston. She also reports for the WBUR newsroom.

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