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Sake Sommelier

Pleasure of Appreciating Subtlety and Depth — John Gauntner

Conversation with Sake sommelier

No drink is more typically Japanese than sake, so it’s unusual that one of the world’s best-known sake experts is a white guy from Ohio. But over the course of writing three English-language books (as well as two in Japanese) and a newspaper column that ran for eight years, John Gauntner has become internationally recognized for his sake knowledge, even winning the “Accomplished Sake Taster” award three times from Japan’s Junsui Nihonshu Kyoukai. In New York City to deliver a lecture on sake at Japan Society he took time out to speak with Chopsticks New York about the great love of his life.

Why sake?
I guess it’s because I find it to be very subtle and very deep. It tastes great, and it smells great, but as a connoisseur’s beverage the subtlety and depth are what I like most. There’re all kinds of sake: sweet, dry, there’s rich, there’s light, there’s very aromatic sake, simple sake. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, but what drew me to sake is that compared to other beverages it’s much more subtle, there’s more balance to it. You taste a sake and put it down and 30 seconds later you taste it again and think, “Wow, it didn’t taste like that the first time.” Then you taste it again and it’s changed a little bit more. The temperature changes it, but it’s also a beverage that has depth.

This is the tenth time you’ve spoken at Japan Society about sake, have you noticed a change in your audience?
The audience is much more educated now and people know a lot more about sake than they used to. They used to not know what ginjo was, they didn’t know that rice milling led to better sake and they didn’t know the difference between the grades, but now a lot more people know those things. Most of the audience is non-Japanese, too.

What sake trends are there in Japan right now?
There’s always some trend happening and the problem right now is that there’re more shochu trends than sake trends and that’s unfortunate. But I think in general sake in Japan is becoming a little more subdued and restrained, a little more gentle. For a while I think people were really liking very live, strong aromas and then they started drinking sake like Muroka Nama Genshu, which is a very powerful sake that’s undiluted and unpasteurized. But that’s not as popular anymore. I think it’s too powerful for most people. I think simple sake is becoming more popular is Japan.

What do you recommend for Americans drinking sake for the first time?
To me what’s wonderful about sake is that it’s almost always fairly priced. There are some exceptions, but if one bottle costs $10 and one costs $20 the $20 bottle will taste better to almost everyone almost all the time. You can’t say that about wine, but with sake you can make a decision based on your budget: pay a little more and you’ll like it a little better. Or if you can’t make up your mind between two sakes then go with the more expensive bottle because it will almost always be better. Also, when you buy a sake, try it at different temperatures. Try it pretty well chilled, try it at close to room temperature and try it also at room temperature. You’ll learn a lot more about the sake that way. The third thing I can recommend is to compare sake as much as possible. If you drink at home, buy more than one bottle at a time and compare them.

In your book you say you take notes every time you drink sake.
Very simple notes: what it smells like, what it reminds me of, what the structure is. I don’t have to write a lot, but the act of writing something down crystallizes your feelings and thoughts about it and makes it easier to remember. If you want to learn about sake, then take notes. You don’t have to study, and they don’t have to be long, but they help crystallize what you’re thinking about it.

What kind of sake do you personally like to drink?
I guess I drink a lot at home, and when I do that I like different styles. But what’s important to remember is that what I’m drinking now is different from what I was drinking three to five years before, which is different from what I was drinking three to five years before that. Everyone has their evolution. When I first started drinking sake, for almost seven years I drank only ginjo and I drank nothing warm. I was a sake snob, but now, maybe because I’m older and more ornery, I like warm sake quite a bit when I’m at home. I also like the less aromatic, more relaxed sakes.

I want to add, that the most important thing you can do if you want to learn about sake is to try the widest range of sakes possible. It’s good to find one you like, but if you really want to learn about it, buy a different brand every time, try it, taste it, take notes on it and your preferences are really going to become clear. I think that’s the best advice I can give.

John Gauntner’s books available in the US
1. The Sake Handbook
2. The Sake Companion: A Connoisseur’s Guide
3. Sake Pure & Simple

John Gauntner’s Home Page