UNCORKED: Automata's Tim Watkins Is Demystifying Saké

Head sommelier of Automata, Tim Watkins, is dedicated to demystifying saké and introducing Japan's traditional drink into Sydney's dining scene.

What inspired you to add saké to your drinks list?
My previous role as a sommelier was for Pilu at Freshwater on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. The cuisine and wines at Pilu have a strong Italian focus, so although I had the opportunity to work with a fantastic selection of Italian and Australian wines, this did bring with it certain restrictions on beverage offerings.
         When I was first introduced to Clayton Wells (Automata Head Chef and co-owner) and the concept of Automata’s five-course menu with optional beverage pairing without regional limitations was presented, I remember my first excited thought being “SAKÉ!”
How does the saké on your list pair with your menu?
We offer a five-course set menu here at Automata, with an optional beverage pairing. The menu changes quite frequently, which gives my team and I the opportunity to work with a diverse range of beverage options. We have almost always had a saké pairing with one of the courses, since we opened last September. We also offer a range of different sakés by the glass, which are quite popular with customers looking for an interesting aperitif, or an alternate to grape wine to have with their meal.
What are the best pairings for saké?
Many of the dishes we serve at Automata have ingredients or techniques inspired by the Japanese and Korean kitchen. Dishes with fermented sauces, or those high in umami tend to work very well with the flavour profiles of most saké. I’ve paired saké with dishes ranging from raw seafood to stracciatella (a soft creamy cheese, similar to mozzarella). We've also used saké in our cocktails.
How popular is the saké on your list?
Most of our customers enjoy our saké pairing. I still occasionally get people who immediately ask for no saké when they see us pairing with it. I am always happy to serve an alternative, however I always still give them a small taste of saké, and ask them if they’re okay if I ask why they don’t like saké. The responses are varied, however in most cases it seems that their only experience with saké has been a cheap rice wine, usually cut with alcohol and served warm, which has given them an enormous headache in the morning! We only serve ‘Junmai’ or 100 per cent rice sake here at Automata, and usually lightly chilled or at room temperature.
Who is saké most popular with?
I’ve been pleased to see a broad range of customers being open to at least trying our saké pairings, as well as ordering off our menu. Although we’ve never promoted our cuisine as 'Japanese' or 'Korean' per se, I feel a lot of people realise rice wine does work well with our menu.