Sake Guy: John Gauntner interview
"Japanese sake is totally different from anything else."
by Masanori Tonegawa
How did you get into sake?
I had sake many times, but I really wasn't interested in it, but there was someone I worked with, a gentleman that is a little bit older than I am, and I went over to his house for dinner at New Year's Day in 1989, and he introduced me to a bunch of good sake. It was my first time that I'd ever had sake that wasn't hot. And it was the first time that I've had more than one at a time, to compare them. And they were all pretty good sake. So I was really very blown away, very amazed, how interesting and diverse and deep and subtle it was, and that's when I started getting into it.
What are the differences between sake and other beverages?
The differences between sake and other beverages, well first of all, sake is made from rice. But there are some other beverages that are as well. Sake is also made using koji, which in the west is never used. I don't know if there's a right way to explain this, but koji is mold that converts starches into sugar by providing enzymes, and that's not used at all in the west. Now they use this in other places of Asia, but it's not used quite the same way when you make sake.
When you make sake in Japan, first of all, every grain of rice has this mold grown onto it,and number two, they time the addition of koji and rice but in a careful way so that they'll never get too much sugar, or never too little sugar within the fermenting mash that gives you about 20% alcohol. So the way sake is made makes it different totally from other beverages.
What's an appeal of sake?
The appeal of it, to me, is number one, it's totally different from anything else. It's totally different from a wine, it's totally different from a beer, and it's totally different from the sprits. I mean, no matter how good a new wine comes out, it's just another wine. No matter how good a fine vodka is, it's just another spirit. Same with a beer, but sake at least in the west, is something totally different. That's part of the appeal.
If you drink a lot of it though, I think the appeal, if you know sake, you can taste it, because the difference between different sakes are very, very subtle. It's kind of a quiet, subtle beverage whose goodness sneaks up on you, and whacks you over the head when you're not thinking about it. I mean, it's very, very deep and complex and appealing. It's presence isn't as nearly as big as for example, wine or spirits, to me, that's the biggest appeal of it.
Please give us a couple of tips for enjoying sake.
If I were to give a couple of rules, I would say number one, one of the great things about sake is that 90% of the time, it's fairly priced. So this one costs, I assume it's going to be in Japan, so this one costs a 1000 yen a bottle and this one's 3000 yen a bottle, everybody's going say that the 3000 yen a bottle would be better. You can't say that about wine or other beverages. So because sake is fairly priced, so if you go to choose a sake, you can make a decision on price and price alone, and you'll be right 90% of the time. Of course, if you know a little bit about sake, for example if you know you like sweet sake, and if there's a very dry one that is more expensive, well, you're better off going with the sweet one, even if it's not quite as expensive if you know what you like. If you don't know, you can trust price 90% of the time.
The second thing is I would say if you drink something, if you remember one good thing about sake, remember the word ginjo. If you're always drinking ginjo, you'll always going to be drinking safe, premium sake. Now of course, that doesn't mean ginjo's the only thing worth drinking. I mean, there are other types of sake that are premium as well. Jyunmaishu and honjozo and things like that are premium sake as well. But if you just want to remember only one word, to make it really, really easy, you always drink something with ginjo on the bottle, you're always going be drinking safe sake.
The third thing I would say is that most of the time, almost always, you're going to want to enjoy your premium sake slightly chilled. Hot sake is out there, but generally that's less expensive- it's cheaper sake usually, and ginjo and premium sake's going to have flavors that are best enjoyed slightly chilled.
Again, there's exceptions. There's always exceptions in the sake world. But for the most part if you keep those 3 rules in mind, in other words, decide on price, drink ginjo, and keep it cool, then you will probably enjoy your sake experience. ■
John Gauntner, known as the 'Sake Guy' in Japan, is the leading non-Japanese sake expert in the world. He is well known within the sake industry as a window to the outside world for making sake popular and understood everywhere. He has written four books and hundreds of articles on sake, is active on the sake lecture circuit, and teaches a series of educational sake seminars .in the Tokyo area. He is also the only non-Japanese to function as an advisor and consultant for the Japanese government on sake promotion and the worldwide sake market.