“My love of sake” John Gauntner
“My love of sake” John Gauntner
A life driven by sake is a life without regrets.
Meeting new people, exploring different drinking vessels, culture and history all burgeoning from the myriad flavors of sake.
Passing on the enjoyment of sake learned in Japan to the world.
John Gauntner is known as the “Sake Evangelist”. Born in 1962 in the state of Ohio in the United States, John first visited Japan as an English teacher as part of the JET program in August 1988. He later gained employment in Japan as an electronics engineer, following which he became a sake journalist. Over eight years, from 1994, John penned a column on Japanese sake for the Japan Times, an English newspaper in Japan. From 2003 onwards, he has been holding seminars for expats living in Japan and in various cities across the United States to spread the word about sake. John, a co-founding member of the Sake Export Association (SEA) is also dedicated to increasing the export of sake out of Japan. Books he has published on sake include “Nihonjin mo Shirenai Nihonshu no Hanashi” (Things About Sake Even Japanese People Don’t Know) (Shogakukan) and his latest publication, “Sake Confidential: A beyond-the-basics Guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection & Enjoyment”, which was released in June this year.
EVERY TIME I THOUGHT ABOUT RETURNING HOME, MY LOVE OF JAPAN AND SAKE HELD ME BACK.
John Gauntner’s current vocation is as a sake evangelist. His purpose in life and his work is dedicated to spreading the “Complex Charm” of sake around the world through publications and seminars both in Japan and overseas.
“This August, I will have been living in Japan for 27 years. Initially it was not that I had a particular interest in Japan or sake, and like a lot of Americans, my only impression of sake was that it was unique in that it was drunken warm. At the time, I definitely preferred wine to sake. (laughs)”
[This is really good!] His first encounter with sake was on New Year’s Day in 1990. John Gauntner, visiting Japan as part of the JET Programme (The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme/a programme inviting young foreign nationals to teach etc. in Japan) spent that New Year at the home of a respected Japanese English teacher.
“After eating, my friend suggested that we have a drink and came back carrying bottles of sake in both arms. He lined up five “Isshobin” (1.8l bottles of sake) bottles in front of me. To be honest, up until that time I was of the impression that all alcoholic beverages made using rice would all taste pretty much the same. However, that first glass of room-temperature sake that I had tasted worlds apart from the “Atsukan” (hot sake) I had experienced in the United States. Tasting and comparing the five bottles, I realized they all tasted different, and it was then, while listening to my friend explain the different grades of sake and how they were made that I became a fan.”
From that day onwards, John regularly purchased his own sake and when visiting an “Izakaya” (Japanese restaurant/bar), would order sake and came to enjoy learning all he could about sake from the restaurant owner.
“The attraction of sake is in its complexity. Sake is not only about flavor and aroma, behind each bottle is the history and culture of Japan, craftsmanship and the ideals of the master brewer etc. The more I discovered about sake, the more I wanted to explore it so I read a lot of books on the subject of sake. My Japanese reading and writing improved significantly as a result.”
As the time to return home drew closer, a three-year offer for a job as an engineer, a career John had pursued in the United States, was placed on the table and John made the decision to remain in Japan.
“With my job, I was required to travel to the Kansai area a lot and with each trip, I looked forward to sampling the local brews. I worked hard for three years and also had the opportunity to expand my knowledge of the sake that I love so much. I finally made the decision to return home to the United States once I had enjoyed the coming cherry blossom season. But it was not to be. My whole life changed at a flower viewing party held by the owner of a bar.
On that day, I found myself speaking passionately about sake to a group of employees that I had just met from the Japan Times. I was approached by them to write a column on Japanese sake for their newspaper and this served as the catalyst for me in deciding to set down roots in Japan. I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life if I missed this opportunity and returned home only to find that years later, another American was making their name in Japan as a sake writer. I truly believed this. (laughs)” The sake column written by John became a regular thing, continuing on for eight years and it was this column that formed the catalyst to publishing his first book, “The Sake Handbook”. This also formed the start of his career as a sake evangelist.
I WANT TO SPREAD THE AMBIGUITY OF BEAUTIFUL JAPANESE SAKE TO THE REST OF THE WORLD.
It is now over 20 years since John decided to make sake his life’s work. He is adamant that he will never grow tired of it.
“I discover something new every time I visit a manufacturer or brewer and there is always someone out there challenging the boundaries with new techniques or brewing methods that defy tradition. There is always a fresh sense of excitement when I try these new sake varieties and you can always enjoy the good times that sake brings. (laughs). I don’t have time to grow tired of it.”
John is currently channeling his energy into spreading the word about Japanese sake around the world, mainly in the United States. However, in his words, teaching people in America, to whom black is black and white is white, about the many delicate flavors and processes behind sake brewing cannot be achieved overnight.
“To western people who demand a straight answer, everything about sake is ambiguous. To me, this is all part of the culture, charm and beauty of Japan but conveying this to others is another thing entirely. “
“For example, when doing seminars in the United States, I’m often asked whether the rice used has an effect on the flavor of the sake. The answer to this question is ambiguous. I could say that expensive rice will not always produce good sake, the Koji and yeast will also affect the flavor and then you have the skill of the master brewer… It is not a straight yes or no answer.”
“If we were talking about wine, you could answer that the Bordeaux region produces a particular variety of grape for a particular tasting wine couldn’t you? But in the case of sake, it is much more ambiguous. I mean you could say that most sake from the Tohoku area has a subtle flavor that becomes more complex the closer you move to the west of Japan. But this is only relevant to 60%-70% of the sake produced in these areas, which also differs from prefecture to prefecture and brewer to brewer. (laughs) But before that, there are no Americans out there that would understand expressions like, ‘a crisp taste with a gently expanding aroma’.”
Nonetheless, with the help of John’s efforts, there has been a dramatic increase in Japanese restaurants that serve good sake and there are even times when you will come across a good bottle of sake in fusion and other Asian restaurants.
“There are over 10,000 Japanese restaurants in the United States. In recent years, if you go to a more up-market restaurant you are more likely to find a sake list that is on par with any wine list. There are bottles on those lists that even I would like to try. I have also heard that there has been an increase in the number of wine sommeliers trying to learn more about Japanese sake in the United States and I can feel firsthand the popularity of sake spread across America.”
“Americans tend to prefer “Ginjo-shu” and “Junmai-shu” and in recent years there has been a flux in stylish bottles giving way to a fashionable element to drinking sake. In the States, there is still that notion that Japanese sake is a high-end alcoholic beverage and I would like this to change so that more people have more access to affordable, great tasting sake right up to bottles that you reserve for those special occasions just like Japan.”
column “John talks choko”
“When your work involves sake it is only natural that your range of drinking cups will grow. When I am at work I only use the snake eye tasting choko to ensure that all the variables remain consistent.
When I’m drinking in private, and I drink nearly every day (laughs), I always go back to the brown-colored earthenware choko because it fits nicely in my hand. It has a rustic feel, giving depth of flavor and it was love at first sight when I saw it in a pottery gallery.
The yellow-colored choko was also one that I purchased after falling in love with it in a gallery that showcased work from a local artist from Chigasaki, an area that is close to my home in Kamakura. The white choko is Kutani Yaki, earthenware from the Kutani region, is also one of my favorites. I had the rim restored using Kintsugi, the art of restoring damaged pottery using lacquer and gold or silver. I will almost always reach for this choko when drinking warm sake.