The Sake Life

John Gauntner is widely considered one of the world’s foremost experts on sake—even by the Japanese. He is the first and only non-Japanese to become certified both as a “Sake Expert Assessor” and a “Master of Sake Tasting”. The former makes him one of just 45 other individuals. He is also a “Sake Samurai,” as recognized by the Japan Sake Brewers Association’s Junior Council. He is widely known around the world as the “sake evangelist”. To have developed such knowledge naturally required years of dedication and study—and copious amounts of drinking, too.

When did your life embark on the path of sake stardom?

I can tell you that very clearly: January 1st, 1989. I came to Japan on the JET Program in August of 1988. In those first few months I would go to an izakaya and drink hot sake, but was just not impressed. Then a teacher at the school where I worked had a party at his house and after dinner he came out with five big jugs of sake. That was the first time for me it wasn’t hot. It was also premium quality and I could do some nomikurabe (drink and compare). Every sip just seemed to morph into something new. The depth of flavors and aromas had such subtlety. After that day, I was smitten and went out of my way for sake. I actually learned Japanese in part to learn more about sake.

How did you actually learn?

There are several certifications now, but at the time there were none. I found a tasting club and visited breweries in a non-systematic, organic way. I bought lots of books and magazines in Japanese to study, so in that sense I’m self-taught. I’ve also had teachers along the way, but never a course. I eventually discovered one, but by that time, they had nothing new to teach me.

What are the certifications like now?

There are quasi-governmental organizations that offer the technical tasting exams that I took, but it’s not for consumers, really. It’s more about process and chemistry. I passed those exams, but had to study really hard—I actually didn’t pass the first time. They have nothing to do with real knowledge, though. I built all my knowledge of sake by reading, traveling, tasting and asking. I was responsible in that I took very careful notes. I was disciplined.

At what point did you become a professional?

I did the JET Program for two years and was about to go home, but then got a job as an engineer—my original line of study. I did that for another three years, learning more and more about sake the whole time. Around 1993 or 94, I met someone who worked for the Japan Times. I wrote a piece for them, but then they came back and asked me to write twice a month. You can’t lie and you can’t repeat yourself so I really had to do some hard research. After that, a publisher came to me to do some books. Then a friend helped me build my website. With that web presence, yet another publisher came to me. But none of this was ever enough to support myself.

I started to do some seminars on the side around 1998, but was suddenly forced to go back to California for the company I was working for. I had to make a decision then: stay in my technical industry or try sake. I couldn’t bear to see somebody else come in and become “the sake expert” after all I had done, so I gave it a shot. I thought that if I end up in the gutter, then I at least tried. It took a lot of heart to make that leap of faith, but I’m glad I did.

How do your courses work?

I wanted to create what I wish had existed when I first got to Japan. But I also realized that the whole bottleneck with sake in the world is the distribution channels. Sake is not going anywhere if distributors think it’s not going to sell. I needed to find a way to educate the people who distribute and sell sake. So I designed a course for sake professionals. I realized that most would probably come from the wine industry. I knew many of the questions people would ask. I design the courses in a very logical progression that builds your knowledge.

In Japan, my courses are three days and we taste 80 to 90 kinds of sake. Then we visit four breweries of different scales at the end of the week. I think that’s very important. I don’t like to say big or small is better. It’s important not to create prejudices against any one scale of brewer. The courses I offer in the U.S. are a little shorter because there aren’t really any breweries to visit.

Do you offer certification now?

Yes. Six years ago, I formed an NPO that provides certification. It’s called the Sake Education Council. I hope that in a couple of decades it will even rival some of the wine organizations. I also started an advanced course about five years ago. 115 people from eight or nine countries have passed the course. Most of the interest is in the U.S. because 35% of Japan’s exported sake goes there. I do the courses in English. Last year, a brewer in Nara sent two of his employees to my course because they were going overseas to sell sake and needed that vocabulary in English.

What has been the reaction of Japanese students?

They say my course is very easy to understand. I am very logical, organized and I get to the point.

Do you get negative feedback?

Actually, no. If anything, it’s that I ride my students too hard over the five days they are here for the Japan course. I have to set expectations. I tell them the three days of drinking will be intense, so don’t go out drinking late because we start early the next morning.

I also tailor the visits to blow their minds. We see amazing breweries and have a wonderful experience. We go to a tiny brewery and then a huge one the very next day. Both are excellent. Then we end up at Daimon Brewery in Osaka. The guy there is charming and speaks English. The food is always good and I never hold back on meals, so people are very satisfied. After my course, nobody is going to tell you something about sake that you don’t already know or that we haven’t covered.

Are you ever intimidated by students in your course?

There are always going to be palates more sensitive than your own and nothing can be said about personal taste. I used to be intimidated by wine people who came in and knew wine really well, but I’ve learned that they are really interested in sake and don’t care about showing off their wine skills.

So you don’t have the ‘sake police’, so to speak, out to get you?

Who would they be? No, I get good support from the industry. And I do try to conform to industry terminology. I don’t make up buzz words. I give my students vocabulary to speak with brewers. I want people to be able to work together in the industry. I’m not a critic, either. I’m trying to develop the market and I’m doing what the industry can’t do: educating in English.

Have you studied peripheral subjects, like serving vessels or food?

Yakimono (ceramic serving vessels) can be an intense study, but the industry has never developed a science like the wine world has with glasses. I think that with a nice guinomi (sake cup), the visual and tactile appeal will take precedence over any science that dictates certain sake will taste better in a certain cup. And sake is very easy to pair with food; there are no tannins and it has low acidity. I’ve learned about food pairing, but there’s not as much science necessary with sake.

What are some of the challenges that brewers face?

Sourcing rice is always an issue. If the rice you get is always different, how do you keep the flavor of the sake consistent? That comes down to the skill of the brewer. They make the most of the rice harvest that year and reanalyze the rice characteristics each time. You have to be a bad-ass to be a toji (master brewer).

What makes a brewer good?

Two things: experience and intuition. There are always some geniuses out there. There are ways to analyze your enzyme content for example, but master brewers still use their senses, pay attention to detail and can be really anal about things.

How is the health of the industry today?

It’s been in decline since the 1970s, except for a bump in 1995 and 96. The past two years have been good in overall domestic consumption, too. Cheap sake is on the decline and premium sake is growing—that’s been the trend for a decade. Premium now accounts for 20~25% of all sake consumed. Exports have been on the increase for a long time, but are still less than 2% of all sake produced!

Does native Japanese sake have an aura of quality?

I believe so, but there’s a real quality issue. You can grow Sauvignon grapes in Ohio, but not like in France. Can the U.S. grow rice like they do here in Japan? I just don’t think so. The quality is good enough to make premium sake, but not as good as Japan.

What are some threats to the industry?

Brewers are good at making premium sake, but not marketing. Sake was the only game in town in the 1960s, but now they have competition from other drinks. They didn’t learn to market their product until it was too late. At the same time, sake breweries are largely family owned and don’t have marketing capacity or the financial resources to do so. The industry is polarized, too. The breweries don’t always cooperate as well as they should to achieve their wider goals of increased consumption.

Where do you see sake in ten years?

I think production will be down, there will be fewer producers, but a more stable industry. Drinking sake was not fashionable, cool or sexy among youth. They said, ‘That’s what old people drink.’ But that’s changing. I also see a massive amount of enthusiasm among younger brewers. There’s a changing of the old guard. You’ll see fresher thinking and new ideas about marketing.

What are your sake recommendations?

It’s first important to understand that nine times out of ten, sake is fairly priced. More expensive sake is generally better. 90% of the time, you’ll get what you pay for. But you also have to know your tastes; cheaper sake might suit you better. Masumi, Urakasumi and Kubota are three go-to brands. Very approachable, very drinkable.

Thanks John.








































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