Japanese sake with experts John Gauntner and Shuso Imada: Season Two, Episode Two

Japanese sake rice fields in front of Mount Daisen, Tottori Prefecture

John Gauntner is recognised as the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert, and he joins us in this episode of the podcast.

I interviewed John in early 2019 as part of a sake press tour with the Japanese Sake & Shochu Makers Association (JSS).

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A resident of Japan since 1988, John Gauntner has been writing and lecturing about sake since 1994 and has published six books on the topic.

Next up, I visited the Japanese Sake & Shochu Information Centre in Tokyo where I sat down for a chat with the centre manager, Shuso Imada.

Japanese sake rice fields in front of Mount Daisen, Tottori Prefecture
Japanese sake rice fields in front of Mount Daisen, Tottori Prefecture – picture courtesy Chiyomusubi Sake Brewery

Shuso has spent almost his entire life in the sake industry – he was born into a family that owns a sake brewery.

At first he had little interest in following in his family’s footsteps, so much so that he did the unthinkable and study a sommelier equivalent qualification in wine.

But little by little, sake drew him back in. And as you would expect for someone of his experience, he has some really interesting insights into Japanese sake industry.

And if you’re heading to Tokyo, I highly recommend you visit the JSS Information Centre, it really is one of the best places you can taste a lot of sake and learn about it.

I also want to recommend John Gauntner’s excellent book, Sake Confidential – I bought a copy last year and it’s a fantastic introductory resource for sake beginners.

And finally, also for people visiting Japan, look out for Rangitoto Tokyo. It’s a brand new bar in Tokyo opened by Wayne Shennen, a sommelier from New Zealand who also has a passion for sake.

Follow James Atkinson on Facebook here, Instagram here and Twitter here.

Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

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Japanese sake with John Gauntner: Full transcript

James Atkinson: John Gauntner, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures Podcast.

John Gauntner: Very much my pleasure. Pleasure to be here.

James Atkinson: You’ve been involved in the sake industry for 25 years now. Tell me how that happened.

John Gauntner: Well, I got to Japan in 1988 to participate in a government program to teach English, and I got into sake right away. I just found it something extremely enjoyable. At New Year’s Day of 1989, someone I worked with introduced me to a handful of good brands and I never really looked back. My interest grew and eventually I met somebody who worked at the Japan Times, which is an English language newspaper here, and they asked me to write a piece for them. I did that, then they asked me to write a column for them. I did that. Then other book publishers saw the column and asked me to write a book for them. I did that and then a friend decided to design a webpage for me. I did that and another publisher saw that and asked me to write for them. So all of a sudden, I’ve written a couple of books. I’m writing a column twice a month. And in order to do all that, you’ve really got to study. You can’t just make stuff up and you can’t lie. So I got more and more involved in the industry, learned more and more about Sake, got more and more interested and fell deeper, deeper into that rabbit hole. Eventually, I got involved in education and export and 25 years later, I’m still busier than ever I thought it would be without the sake.

Japanese sake expert John Gauntner
Japanese sake expert John Gauntner

James Atkinson: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry over that time?

John Gauntner: I think the most visible change is the changing of the guard. There’s a completely different set of people running the breweries these days than when I first got into it, so everyone seems to have passed it on to their sons or daughters. And I think the generation in charge now is much more creative in terms of marketing, labelling, what they’re thinking. They’re much more actively involved in the brewing process. So there’s really a whole lot of fresh new attitudes and a fresh new blood in the industry. That’s one huge change that I’ve seen.

John Gauntner: There are others. I’ve seen sake become much more aromatic and lively and then kind of retreat a little bit from there, and I’ve seen a serious move towards premium sake. In other words, the lower grades of sake are being less and less consumed and premium grades of sake are definitely growing in popularity.

James Atkinson: You said that sake is unlike other alcoholic beverages and the consumers almost always get what they pay for in terms of quality. Why is that the case?

John Gauntner: I do say that sake is fairly priced 90% of the time, not 100% of the time, but 90% of the time. But I need to hasten to add that kind of really means if you don’t have a whole lot of experience with sake and you want to get into it, then you can depend on price being fair 90% of the time. If you know what your preferences are, and the principle doesn’t apply quite as well. But let’s say you’re approaching sake early on in your sake career, you don’t know much about it. And the reason I think that 90% of the time it’s fairly priced is because number one, better sakes will use better rice. Sake rice and regular rice are slightly different, and not all sake is made from proper sake rice, but most premium sake is. So if you use proper sake rice, it’s going to cost you two or three times much just for the raw materials, but your final product will be very enjoyable. Second of all, to make more technically premium sake, you need to know the rice more and more to end up with a more refined product. Well, that’s not the only style of sake that’s enjoyable. The more refined product tends to be more expensive and more easily approachable by a lot of people. But the more you know the rice, the more you’re going to increase the cost of your raw materials.

John Gauntner: So the first thing is using a high quality rice, that’ll drive up both price and quality. The second thing is milling the rice that you’ve got, more and more, we should drive at both price and quality, but there is craftsmanship. You can make sake using very, very automated processes and lots of machines and a lot of that sake is extremely enjoyable, but almost without exception the best sake in the market is going to be made by hand, and that’s going to cost you more to do that. So between price, quality and craftsmanship, those three things, were all ed to enjoyability of sake, but it’ll increase the price as well.

James Atkinson: Are there many producers that have sought to differentiate themselves from the competition by creating extremely rare products and really focusing on trying to create a premium aura around their brands?

John Gauntner: I would say that there actually are not too many brewers who tried to differentiate themselves with something too unique or special. There’s a couple, you can get some extremely expensive sake from brewers that will use only the absolute best rice possible. And you’ll get some others that will do other things with ageing and other things as well. But for the most part, I think most brewers are trying to differentiate themselves with perhaps local or better rice or unique rices and production methods, but also packaging. I see a lot more going on into more attractive packaging these days and more traditional methods of production.

James Atkinson: That’s actually one of my next questions was just that the branding and the labels are actually very homogenous for a Westerner in some senses. As much as the kanji is really, really beautiful.

John Gauntner: Right.

James Atkinson: There is a similarity because they’re all based around these kanji characters. Is that something that you’re seeing changing?

John Gauntner: I don’t see these kanji characters changing at all. I really don’t. I do see brewers changing the parents of labels, the shapes of labels, the information on labels. Remember that the primary market is domestic and that’s important to keep in mind. Even within various kanji characters, you can get completely different styles and senses and how bold the characters are, how delicate the characters are, how close they are or how straight forward they are. So while the industry is looking overseas, the main market is still domestic. When you look overseas, they’re going to benefit much more with English on the label, not replacing the Japanese, but for example, an informative back label in English or a gorgeous Japanese level with just enough English at the bottom that tell you what it is you’re drinking. I see a lot of brewers going in that direction with their labelling.

James Atkinson: One of the things you often hear from people who visited Japan is that they’ve enjoy the sake, but it was really difficult to know what it was that they were drinking, where it was from, what grade it was, is that something that you think that the industry needs to address?

John Gauntner: Certainly, more work can be done on that front. To me, it will be even more helpful though for sake shops and department stores that carry good sack in the big cities to put together some kind of presentation of data of what you can get where. In other words, more than go to the individual breweries, go to the people actually selling it and say, “Look, you have such a potential for sales with consumers from overseas here. Make what you’re selling in your store more understandable to people.” I think that would be more effective than actually having the brewers themselves try and do it.

James Atkinson: I would be completely intimidated to go into a retail outlet in Tokyo and try and buy. So, okay. I would know one thing though, which is to look for ginjo grade sake. Maybe you could talk to that.

John Gauntner: Yeah. I will. Well, if you remember the word ginjo and buy something with the word ginjo on the label or in the name of the sake, you’re guaranteeing that you’re going to be technically in the tap 14% of all sake. That doesn’t mean it’s the only thing you should be drinking. Let me say that again. It’s important. I’m not saying that ginjo is the only thing with drinking, not by any stretch of the imagination. However, if you just wanted to remember one word and make it easy to get in and get out with something you know is going to be good. If you buy something with the word ginjo on the label, you’re going to be okay.

James Atkinson: I saw you posting on Facebook recently encouraging people to drink more honjozo, and also futsu-shu. Maybe you could talk to why people should be drinking these grades are sake, which are … This is the lower grade at sake, isn’t it, John?

John Gauntner: Well, it is a lower grade, but I mean lower grade, technically speaking. In other words, there’s so much wonderful, delicious honjozo and futsu-shu out there. Certainly, futsu-shu can be a little bit rougher and a little bit fuller and less polished. However, not all of it is, a lot of it is extremely enjoyable. And honjozo is probably the most underrated classification in the whole kitten caboodle, so there’s so much wonderful sake out there in the honjozo or futsu-shu classifications. Furthermore, I think people make a line and they say, “Okay, junmai and ginjo and above are premium and everything else isn’t even worth drinking.” And that’s just so not true. It’s certainly a gradual change from not so good to extremely good across those lines. So it’s not fair to say that anything that isn’t in the premium classifications isn’t good. It’s just kind of unfortunate that things got classified that way. That’s number one. Number two, if you really want to learn about sake, the best way to do it is to drink a wide range of flavour profiles. You wouldn’t only drink one type of wine and expect that you know a lot about wine. The more variety you can pull in, the more you learn about it. Lastly, if you really want to help the industry, and we do because we want as many brewers as possible to survive as long as possible to ensure that we get diversity, if you really want to help the industry, we should be drinking more futsu-shu and honjozo. That will help them the most because that’s what’s declining the most in sales.

James Atkinson: You said that those lower grades can also give you more of an idea about regional character.

John Gauntner: Absolutely.

James Atkinson: Maybe you could talk to why that is.

John Gauntner: Well, ginjo and the higher grades occur from more milling, tend to be more and more refined and as such they tend to become more similar to each other than the original styles of the region. So in other words, ginjo tends to be more foodie and lively and tastes more like other ginjo than it has the original styles of the regions from which they came. You can definitely see more regionality reflected in honjozo and futsu-shu. So if you want to learn more about regionality in sake, drink the so called lower grades and you’ll enjoy more, and tastes more and learn more and learn more about regionality as well.

James Atkinson: In Australia, there are several important to exclusively sell junmai grade sake. Maybe you could explain to listeners what junmai is.

John Gauntner: How much time do you have? So, there’s a lot of ways to say, all sake can be divided into two classifications. There’s a lot of ways to say that, but one way to say that is those that have had distilled alcohol added to them during the process and those that have not. Until about 1941 or so, all sake was made with rice, water and koji mould only, no distilled alcohol was added to any sake at all.

John Gauntner: Various things during that era dictated that it was important that the government ask all brewers to cut the product with alcohol. And they did that for a number of reasons, one of which is to save rice. And there are other reasons as well. So from the early 1940s until the late 1960s, absolute all sake had alcohol added to it, and most of that was done for economic reasons. However, the late ’60s, a couple breweries started to make sake and not add in the distilled alcohol to that and that became known as junmai sake.

John Gauntner: So we have a classification in which no alcohol has been added, the junmai types. Then we had the added alcohol types. Now, these days when you’re getting into the realms of premium sake, when they get into realms of ginjo and diginjo, not the junmai types, but the types that they added a bit of alcohol, when they add the alcohol, it’s done for very good technical reasons and not for economic reasons.

John Gauntner: So if you have a sake fermenting mash and you add a bit of alcohol to it at the end, what you do is you temporarily raise the overall alcohol content. Then when you filter out the sake from the rice salads that remain, because the flavorful and aromatic compounds are soluble in alcohol, you are able to pull out more flavour and aroma from the fermenting mash. So that’s one advantage of adding alcohol. Later, they add more water so that the product is not fortified. It just that one step of the process, it temporarily had a slightly higher alcohol content.

John Gauntner: Another advantage of the non-junmai sake is that they’ve got a better shelf life. They will stand up to maturity longer. So there’s a lot of positive technical aspects to adding alcohol and making the non junmai types. There are those that insist that junmai is better and they may have reasons, for example, that the added alcohol gives him a headache, where that’s simply natural because it’s the same alcoholic gives him a hangover, and other reasons as well. But none of those really stand up to proper analysis. Another reason to enjoy the added alcohol types because really there is some outstanding non-junmai types out there, just outstanding sake that is as good as it is because they’ve used the added alcohol process.

James Atkinson: So you’re certainly not a junmai purist.

John Gauntner: You are correct. I am not a junmai purist. Again, if people that are free to be a purist for any reason you want, but most of the technical reasons that people give actually are not valid. There are a couple that are valid though. There’s people that say, “Look, this is nihonshu Japanese sake, right? Why are we using alcohol that’s added and that alcohol did not come from rice or did not come even from Japan? It’s usually made from imported sugar cane. And that’s valid. When you have junmai you get traceability to everything in your product. There are ways to make added alcohol sake, that have got that same traceability, but those haven’t really caught on yet.

James Atkinson: One of the most common misconceptions about sake that you would like to change?

John Gauntner: That bad sake is served hot to hide the bad flavours and good sake is served chilled. Certainly more premium sake is still slightly chilled, but there’s a lot of premium sake out there that’s extremely enjoyable, gently warm. And I would like people to rediscover that, but I think a lot of people say they heat bad sake to hide the flaws and that’s not true at all. You can’t hide flaws by heating sake, but before ginjo and all this kind of aromatic sake came around, people were drinking warm sake a long time ago. It’s a more traditional way to enjoy it. There’s a lot of premium sake, a lot of ginjo that’s extremely enjoyable, generally warmed. The most important myth I would like to dispel is that bad sake is hot, and good sake is cold and that they heat the bad sake to hide the flaws. That’s not at all true.

James Atkinson: You said today that Fukushima is the prefecture that’s most respected by sake aficionados in Japan. Why is that, and has the region suffered from a reputation standpoint as a result of the nuclear disaster in 2011?

John Gauntner: Without a doubt, Fukushima probably has the highest reputation amongst people in the industry. And the reason is that there’s just technically so adept, there’s a national tasting of sake brewed by the entire industry every year. And Fukushima Prefecture has won more gold medals than any other prefecture for like the last six years in a row. And like eight out of the last 10 years. They just have it down. They know how to produce outstanding sake in their prefecture. Furthermore, there’s three clear terrains there. There’s the sea side, there’s plains, and then there’s mountains, and they all have different styles of sake. So Fukushima pretty much has an extremely diverse range of sake there. And the brewery as a whole, is technically very, very good at producing very elegant and refined sake. They did suffer a lot of reputation loss when there was a nuclear accident there following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. However, Fukushima prefecture has been very, very good at addressing the issues, testing all of the rice, testing all of the water, testing all of the product. And not just sake, all agricultural products that come out of the prefecture are tested and ensuring and guaranteeing that their sake is very, very safe. So we can be sure that it’s probably the safest sake in the country, but their reputation is still suffering, although they’ve come back quite a bit. They’ve got a bit of a ways to go.

James Atkinson: You said today that sake has been produced essentially in the same way for 1000 years. What are some of the recent innovations that have happened?

John Gauntner: So looking over the past 800 to 1000 years, I would say that many things have not changed, but some that have, for example, is the use of cultured yeasts. And that’s only been around for about 100 years or so. But before then, everyone would be using their ambient east and that will lead to a particular style of sake. But now if a brewer wants particularly aromas, they can select the yeast that does that.

John Gauntner: I think scientific measurements, the ability to measure things like sugar content and alcohol and acidity and amino acid, it’s something that they couldn’t do a long time ago. And that allows brewers to be much more precise these days, for the more climate control. In the old days, you had to deal with the climate in your environment. If you were in the southwestern part of Japan, it was warmer. If you’re in northeastern part of Japan, it was colder. Now you can climate control very easily.

John Gauntner: So a lot of technical advancements that don’t really change the way sake is brewed, but rather how the brewers can control things better, have been some huge changes. So those are some of the bigger changes I think we’ve seen over the last a hundred years or so, that makes sake better than it’s ever been.

James Atkinson: What about in the last decade or so? Is there much experimentation?

John Gauntner: Yes, there is constantly, but I couldn’t say new yeast, new rice grains, and that’s true. New strains of yeast and new rice grains, many, many more in the last decade. They’ve had them for decades, but in the last decade, we’ve seen a lot more new rices and new yeast varieties that have come out with these. New methods, not really new methods, but new tools that allow brewers to do the old methods more accurately. I heard from one toji that, and a toji is a master brewer, but what I heard from one toji who had worked with a lot with older toji, that said that, “We’ve got thermometers now, and we’ve got things that can measure sugar content, and alcohol content, and acidity.” Right? In the old days, a toji did it with their nose, and then they tasted things, and they used fingers as thermometers and they had some old toji do it by feel and it was like 1% accuracy. So the old people could still do it, but modern tools allow us to do with a bit more reproducibility and more accuracy, I think, and more predictability as well.

James Atkinson: Your home country of the U.S. is the largest sake export market by a long way. What has driven the growth of sake consumption there?

John Gauntner: I think especially in the last decade, one thing that has really helped sake consumption quite a bit is the fact that wine professionals are very enjoyably embracing sake. I think 20 years ago they didn’t take sake seriously. They weren’t so interested in it. They might’ve had to learn a bit about it for exams, they might have to take, but I think it’s more and more wine professionals got into sake, they discovered its appeal, and they become very genuinely interested in it and very deeply interested in it.

John Gauntner: What’s cool about that is wine professionals probably have more of an influence on the average consumer than anybody else. So if they go into a restaurant and then someone there suggest sake over wine, they’re going to latch onto it, they’re going to trust him or her, and they’re going to try that sake with the dish. And they’re going to go back and they’re going to remember that and they’re going to want to have another bottle. So the influence of trained wine professionals on consumers is huge, and the fact that they’re really, genuinely, enthusiastically, happily, embracing sake over the last decade in particular, has really had a very positive influence.

James Atkinson: And that’s been the case in the U.S.?

John Gauntner: Absolutely, yes. Absolutely. Yes. I believe around the world too, to be honest with you. Maybe not in absolutely every country, but I’ve met wine professionals from many countries that are very enjoyably embracing sake.

James Atkinson: Japanese whiskey is obviously really booming at the moment, and there is a bit of a craft beer movement happening in Japan now as well. It was a little bit slow to catch on. I understand there are some companies that actually produce more than…


Japanese sake with Shuso Imada of the Japanese Sake and Shochu Information Centre in Tokyo: Full transcript

Shuso Imada: Hi my name is Shuso Imada, and I’m in charge of the Sake and Shochu Information Centre, which is located in the centre of Tokyo, owned by the Sake and Shochu Makers Association. Which is the central organisation of about 1700 breweries and distilleries of sake and shochu all over Japan.

James Atkinson: And you’ve had a very long career in sake with your family business.

Shuso Imada: Yes.

James Atkinson: So maybe you could tell me about that.

Shuso Imada: My grandfather was the third son of the brewery in Hiroshima. Which produces a sake called Fukucho, and as my grandfather was a third son and his elder brother succeeded the brewery, he came to Tokyo to sell the products as a small retail liquor shop over there. Then he got a license to do a wholesaler. Wholesaling businesses over there. And my father succeeded. Since I was a child, I was really surrounded by the atmosphere of sake. And my father and grandfather always did a tasting from the morning. And sometimes, I would say often, they would let me taste some sakes. Since I was very small. It’s illegal but it’s not drinking, it’s tasting. So they allowed me to do tastings.

Shuso Imada of the Japanese Sake and Shochu Information Centre
Shuso Imada of the Japanese Sake and Shochu Information Centre

James Atkinson: And how did you like your first experiences of tasting sake as a young boy?

Shuso Imada: Not really. I didn’t really like it because I couldn’t really understand what sake means. Being a member of sake business was not my dream at that time. I was not quite interested in sake. So I started learning about wines and I took the exam to become a sommelier when I was 29 or so I think.

James Atkinson: And what was your attitude towards sake at that time?

Shuso Imada: Well, it’s our business. I mean, you know, it’s my father’s job. Let him do it. And I do the minimum I have to do. I was not quite into it. But as time passes I gradually, somehow came to be interested in sake. Little by little, more and more. And after 10 years, or 15 years, I only like sake and I have almost no interest in wine anymore. I drink sake every night. It’s very interesting, what happened to me.

James Atkinson: You know we saw when you were here the other day about consumption of sake declining in Japan. What’s your perception of why that is happening?

Shuso Imada: The total alcohol consumption has been decreasing. Because the population of Japan is decreasing. 1973 was the peak, and since then about 40 years the consumption has been decreasing. It’s almost about one third of the volume compared to the peak. But the biggest reason that sake has been decreasing is that there has been other choices, beers and wines, and all the imported liquors. And sake is often served warm in Japan. And that doesn’t fit the drinking style of the younger generation, I think.
And also the industry itself didn’t pay too much attention to building the younger market. And each city, each town, or each village, there should be the brewery of sake, and brewery of miso, and soy sauce. And among those three, the Japanese sake family is usually the biggest. They’re rich families, so they are in a proud of themselves and their attitude is like, “If you want sake, we can sell it.” They didn’t really take so much of an effort to sell their products.

Shuso Imada: But there has been a change in the market. A big turning point was in the 1990s, there was a brewery called Juyondai, from Yamagata prefecture and it’s an old brewery. The person now is 15th generation of the family I think. And like most of other breweries, their sales has decreased. And his father told his son he’s going to quit his business as a brewery, but the son learned brewing at the university so he wanted to try what he has learned at the university. So he asked his father to give him one chance to make his own sake. For one season. And he did it, and it turned out that the sake has become a big hit for them. Because it’s a younger guy who made sake. Before that elder people makes it, very old toji (head brewer) produces it. And looking back, the sake he has produced, the quality of sake was quite different from the sakes produced before that. That’s the sake that he wanted to make as a younger generation. The taste of the younger generation compared to the elder generation are very different. Because they have grown up with a very different food. You know, the elder people has been grown up and lived with the Japanese food, from morning to night. Starting the breakfast with rice and miso soup, and pickles, and baked salmon, and radish, everything. But you know these days younger generation doesn’t eat that kind of thing. They start the breakfast with bread, and soup, and sausage. And daily consumption of the food has been westernised pretty much in these several decades. So the sake type that the younger generation wanted to make or drink has been very different from the ones which had been produced by the elder generation, I think.

James Atkinson: Which styles do you personally enjoy the most?

Shuso Imada: I like every kind of sake I would say. Because it’s TPO, do you use the word TPO? Time, Place, and Occasion?

James Atkinson: I’ve never heard TPO but I know what you mean.

Shuso Imada: It’s a very common word in Japan.

James Atkinson: TPO

Shuso Imada: It depends on where you eat, with whom you drink, or which occasion you drink. If I drink sake with oden, the Japanese traditional food, I would prefer to maybe drink honjozo type or a ginjo type which is not aromatic, with deep umami with it. And if I drink sake with a sashimi, or Italian type of carpaccio, I would choose sake with a little bit of an acidity in it. And if I just drink sake by itself, I will choose maybe a very aromatic type of sake or a sparkling type of sake, maybe, by itself. So it’s really TPO.

James Atkinson: Do you think that with the introduction of ginjo grade sake that some people have focused too much on that new modern style of sake?

Shuso Imada: Ginjo style have a very fruity aroma, and a very delicate type of taste. And that style is very easy for people to understand. So the ginjo sake may be the best gateway for the sake beginners. If we force them to drink a very rich type of complex junmai kimoto style, they won’t like it. And if you drink ginjo, ginjo, and ginjo, then sometimes you get tired of these fruity aromas. And then you go to the next stage.

James Atkinson: I was excited to learn about the podcast. And since we’re on my podcast, maybe you could tell my listeners how they can listen to your podcast.

Shuso Imada: Okay, we have started another full podcast called ‘Sake on Air’. It’s made by some sake professionals living in Japan including the famous John Gauntner, and we talk about lots of topics for the beginners, and the professionals too. It’s very interesting. Well we still have only seven topics. But so far so good.

James Atkinson: Fantastic. Well Shuso, I think we’ll finish there. Thanks so much for your time on the podcast. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Shuso Imada: It’s been a pleasure talking to you James.

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