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Sake World Newsletter


Dec. 2009


Top Story

Tasting With Mr. T

Year-end Greetings To All Readers
It is here already: the near-end of 2009. I hope it finds you and Traditional New Year's Decorations - right around the corner!yours well.

This month, we look at the idea of knowing too much about sake, and also some reasons why a smaller brewer may have trouble getting known in spite of their quality. Also, I introduce a new section this month, Sake Basics - just a short, concise blurb on fundamental sake concepts and terms. And, finally, I am happy to announce the release of that gift you have been looking for, perfect for the person that has everything (like your own fine self), The Sake Dictionary. See below for details.

Enjoy the newsletter with some gently warmed o-kan, or perhaps your favorite holiday brew. Happy Holidays to all readers.


Tasting With Mr. T
Knowing too much can get in the way...
and why some smaller kura have a hard time "making it."

There I was, floating from table to table, enjoying sake I cannot usually get my hands on at one of the most interesting tasting events I have been to in a long time... and I spot him from across the room: Mr. T. The one and only.

Obviously, it wasn't the same Mr. T from Rocky and The A Team, although seeing him at a sake tasting here in Japan would have been impressive. But this Mr. T is just as tough when it comes to assessing sake. More on that in a moment. And, in fact, it would be much, much more appropriate for me to refer to this gentleman as T-Sensei.

The event in question was a party in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the opening of Kawashima Shu-En, a great sake pub and restaurant in Tokyo. It is hopelessly tiny, seating but 15 or so, but their food, sake and pairings of those are legendary. While the food is handled by the couple after which the establishment is named, the sake is mostly ferreted out and brought into the light by one Iwai-san, a quiet guy with the experience, willingness and requisite free time to look outside of the box and discover good sake from all over Japan. In some ways, his efforts could even be called bold or courageous.

Why do I label his efforts as "bold or courageous?" There are 1400 kura actively making sake in Japan now, maybe 1100 when we take away those that actually buy completed product from others and re-label it as their own.

Amongst those are many that do not come into the forefront, not because their sake is not good, but for one of several other practical reasons. One of these may be that they just don't make enough sake to make a market or business for the distribution network. It other words, they may make so little that it is not worth said network's time to distribute it. A retailer might get a few bottles, but that's it, after that, there ain't no more. This takes the wind out of the distribution channel's sales, since even if they were to help move it along, if it is never to return to the shelves once it sells out, it is hard to maintain the interest of customers, who often will often return to something they know they can count on being there. Boring, maybe, but reality.

Or perhaps the problem could be that their yields are so small that consistency is an issue, either in actuality or in the minds of buyers. The brand name could be thought of as "Hit-n-miss Masamune," so to speak. "Great one year but whacked out the next" is no way to build a brand or a following, goes the thinking behind this.

And, yet one more reason is that they may have only recently begun to make sake of good enough quality, before that meeting very local needs with mediocre hooch - a path that holds l potential for the future that would best be described as "none to negative." Kura like this are still flying under the radar. Often this happens when the next generation takes over, and gets bitten by the good sake bug.

But Iwai-san doesn't care. If it is good - even if it is idiosyncratic - he digs it out and brings it into the light. Who cares if it will not be the same next year, or if you'll never be able to buy it again, or if no one else has ever heard of it? If  they're decent, he will find 'em. And at this event, I could enjoy 'em.

And enjoy I did. Granted, a lot of 'em were quirky. Good, but quirky. I knew that, but still was surprised by the comments of the aforementioned Mr. T (Sensei). As our sake tasting  trajectories brought us close at one table, he looked up at me, shook his head dourly, and said, "I pity da fools."

Ok, well, maybe not those exact words. But the feeling was the same. But you have to realize who and what Mr. T was (is), and of what he is capable.

Mr. T (Sensei) is a retired sake taster for the government of Japan, and his palate and tasting abilities are the stuff of legends. Still sought after long after retirement, he continues to run the circuits of tasting, and who know many brewers he advises.

Once, when he and I were amongst a group of 15 tasting the soon-to-be-released sake of a particular Niigata brewer, the owner had put in a couple of unrelated sake to keep us honest. And Mr. T, without being prompted, identified one of them blindly. It could have been one of 25,000 products. "I'd know that peculiar sweet touch anywhere!" he laughed. How is this possible? If I did not know better I would swear he had to have had looked at the label. But of course he had not; that's just Mr. T (Sensei).

But he was less jovial today. "I dunno," he continued. "Of all the sake I have tasted today, there is but one that is up to snuff from a proper technical production standpoint," he lamented. "The rest are just lucky to be enjoyable, that's it. That's why I pity da fools,"

Hm. In spite of that, he seemed to be enjoying the lack of spittoons as much as I was. Maybe he was right. Or maybe he was longing for the glory days of being the best palate in da bidness. I dunno.

I guess the point is, though, that there is a clinical level of assessment that - while not at all incorrect - is not where most of us are, or need to be. If we find a sake enjoyable, end of story. If not, that too is the end of the story. In hearing Mr. T's comments, it reminds me that it is very possible when it comes to sake to simply know too much.

Enjoy sake for what it is. As you taste more and come to know more, don't let what you know interfere with what you can enjoy. Sure, sake can be a bit too old, or too nama-ish, or too fruity, or too dry, or too- a million other things. It is a delicate beverage with complex production and after-care requirements. And perhaps you, like the venerable Mr. T, can tell just what went wrong where. But if you don't have to do so, try to avoid that, and enjoy idiosyncrasies for what they are. And that need not apply to only sake…


Did you know?
Sake Brand-name Characters

Most sake brand names are clever, poetic references that are often tied in with nature. Over the 1000 years of naming brands, a couple have risen to the top of the frequency list. Most common is the character for mountain 山, pronounced "yama" or "san." Next is the character for crane 鶴 (as is bird).

Number three and four on the list are "masa" and "mune," almost always seen together in the combination "masamune 正宗." What do these mean? Why are they so commonly used?

There are countless sake that have "masamune" as the second half of their brand name, but the very first one is said to have been Sakura Masamune from Nada in Hyogo prefecture. Sakura Masamune is a very old, famous and prestigious brewer, and eons ago their founder visited a friend that was the head priest at a hermitage called Gensei-an.

There, he looked up on a bookshelf and saw a book of scripture by the Rinzai sect Zen master Rinzai Masamune. In a moment of inspiration, he realized that the characters for "masamune" could also be read "seishu 正宗," which is a homonym for the legal term for sake. And so, the first of hundreds of meigara bearing the term "masamune" was born, with great expectations. Following that, everybody jumped on the "Masamune Bandwagon," and the word became closely associated with sake.


Sake Basics
Introducing yet another "corner" to the Sake World email newsletter: Sake Basics.

Why Sake Basics? Because most of us are busy, and we may not have the time or willingness to memorize things. Sure, you can pass over terms here and there, time and again, but often we think, "Man, I've seen and heard that word before, but what does it mean again?" And since not know for sure does not interrupt our enjoyment of what we are reading (or drinking!), and we can gather all we need from context, we move on. As well we should.

So here, each month, we will review one term or buzzword, define it concisely, and move on. The whole thing is designed to take no more than ten seconds of your time. So enjoy. And with no further ado:

Junmai-shu 純米酒
What a great place to start! Junmai-shu is sake made without any added alcohol. All sake was like this until about 50 years ago; now but 13 to 14% is. In cheap sake, alcohol is added to increase yields and make the sake more cheaply. But in premium sake, alcohol is added to help pull out flavors and aromas that are soluble in alcohol - wonderful brewing technology, really, that has been in use here in Japan for over 100 years.

If the word "junmai" is on the label (it means "pure rice") then no alcohol was added. Until a few years ago, the minimum milling rate for rice used in junmai-shu was 70% (i.e. at least 30% removed), but that has been abolished and replaced with an obligation to list the milling rate for all junmai-shu.

Note, in sake that is NOT junmai, after alcohol is added, water is added too so that in the end the alcohol content is the same, so it is NOT fortified. Note, too, that there are purists in Japan (at least) that insist that only junmai is valid, and all added alcohol sake is of inferior quality. I most assuredly do not ascribe to that belief, though. And, finally, note we rarely see NON-junmai sake in the US as the taxes are higher at the import level.


Sake Brewery Tours: we are live NOW!
Sake Tourism has begun!

Want to visit sake breweries in Japan? Now you can!

I am pleased to announce the starting of the Sake World Sake Brewery Tours program. Now, anyone can access the inner workings of the sake world. Visit Japan, start off with a bit of formal sake education by yours truly, then you are off to see several sake breweries while under the care of an experienced sake-savvy interpreter. Events include sake-centered meals and other cultural sight-seeing options - and even a bit of free time. This brewing season, there are two tours planned:

  • Tour I:  Feb. 23 to 27 in Kansai (Osaka / Kyoto / Kobe area)
  • Tour II: March 15 to 19 in San-in (Shimane / Tottori area)

For more information, pricing and reservations please go to Participation is extremely limited this season for the two tours that are scheduled.  


Sake Professional Course in Japan
January 25 to 29, 2009

The 2010 Sake Professional Course will take place in Tokyo (and Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe) Japan from Monday January 25 to Friday January 29, 2010.This is it, folks: simply the most thorough sake education on the planet. Three days of instruction and tasting are augmented by two days of sake brewery visits, with evenings filled with good food and the best sake Japan has to offer. Reservations are being taken now, and are expected to go fast. For more information please go here, and/or to reserve, please email me at  



  • Dancyu Blog
    I have begun a blog on sake related ramblings for the gourmet magazine Dancyu. It is, however, in Japanese. Should you be interested and able to check it out, you can find it here. Also, for those with the requisite interest, an article in English on yers truly.   
  • Audio Program on Sake
    I have also begun an audio program - five minutes at a time - that includes sake recommendations. The monthly posts can be heard at a fascinating blog covering a wide range of arts and traditions of Japan, done by Steve Beimel, a decades-long resident of Kyoto. It is worth visiting for much more than the few measly sake updates!
  • Sake Bar "Nihonshu" in Melbourne
    A new sake pub has opened in Melbourne, Australia. Owned by Sake Professional Course I and II graduate Andre Bishop, more info is available here for those readers close enough to check it out. While I have not had that pleasure yet, I hope to soon.


Sake's Hidden Stories
I am very pleased, if not relieved, to finally announce the publication of my new ebook, Sake's Hidden Stories, subtitled The Personalities, Philosophies, and Tricks-of-the-Trade Behind the Brew.

Sake's Hidden Stories ($14.99) will give you a view to what goes on in the sake industry behind the brew we all love so much. The book goes into stories much deeper than the information we most commonly encounter; way beyond simply what ginjo-shu is, what junmai-shu is, or what the role of koji is. You will learn about the personalities behind the sake. You will see in just how much detail some brewers make sake, and how each is different in where importance is placed. And most significantly, something that has not been written about in any book on sake in English, you will meet more than a dozen brewers, and encounter their personalities. You'll see what makes them tick, what drives them in their work, and how their histories and idiosyncrasies affect the sake they brew.

For more information on content and get your copy, go here.As with any ebook or informational product I offer, satisfaction is 100% guaranteed. If you don't like it or feel it was worth what you paid for it, I will cheerfully refund your money. Finally, for a nice third-party review of the book, check out this cool blog.


Sake Educational Products
Jump-start your sake savvy

Just a reminder to check out the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three educational products immediately downloadable for your education and further sake enjoyment. We offer three products, with more to come soon, including a full-blown, comprehensive self-study course covering all the material in the Sake Professional Course, and more.
First is The Sake Notebook, a 15-page pdf file guaranteed to jump-start your sake understanding and appreciation. It covers everything related to sake in a tight, concise and easily digestible presentation replete with plenty of photos and diagrams for at-a-glance enlightenment. Sake basics, history, grades and quality levels, aging, temperature, storage and more are all briefly touched upon to create a foundation upon which more sake learning can flourish. There is also a list of 250 (count 'em!) sake brands to look for and try. Finally, included with purchase is access to a password protected area on known as "The Goodstuff" a regularly updated list of good sake recommendations, replete with brief commentary on each, and some indication of John's personal recommendations and preferences. Available for $15.
Next is The Sake Production Slideshow, an executable file (Photojam) wherein resides a 15-minute slideshow of photos of the sake-brewing process from beginning to end, giving you a glimpse into the day-to-day brewing environment of sakagura in Japan. Available for $15. Also, access to "The Goodstuff" comes with this product as well.
Third is a bundled package of both The Sake Notebook and The Sake Production Slideshow for those that cannot make up their minds or simply have to have - or give - both as gifts. Available as a set for $25.
Surely these would make wonderful gifts for those close to you that are itching to get into good sake, and their easily downloadable digital format makes it all that much easier.


Holiday Gift Idea: The Sake Dictionary
Give the gift that keeps one drinking...only $6.99

Announcing the (pre-)release of The Sake Dictionary - available at a special introductory price now to readers of this newsletter for a very limited time only.

Have you ever found yourself out and about at perhaps a retail shop or at a sushi bar, perusing the sake menu and wondering - or trying to recall - just what the dickens all those terms actually mean? Wouldn't it have been great to have a quick guide that fits in your pocket, pda, or phone that you could whip out to confirm a term or two? Well, here it is.

The Sake Dictionary is just that: A concise little package of all the terms you might ever come across when dealing with sake. Almost 200 of them - including sake grades, rice variety names, seasonal sake terms, special varieties, rare types, post-brewing processing words and the myriad terms used in sake production - many of which are not even familiar to the average Japanese person on the street - are listed up here with concise, useful and clear definitions and the written Japanese version as well.

Start to toss around Japanese sake terms like you were raised knowing them! Gain a level of familiarity hitherto unimaginable! Avoid frustrating paralysis when faced with a sake-related purchase!

Get your copy of The Sake Dictionary now and never be confused by sake terms again.

And, for a short time limited to this holiday season only, you - as a valued reader of the Sake World Email Newsletter - can purchase The Sake Dictionary at the special price of $6.99.

So click here to purchase your copy of The Sake Dictionary and eliminate sake stress and get a permanent grip on those pesky terms, and start really enjoying your sake.

For more information, go here. But trust me, it is a simple document, well laid out and concise, and will perform just as you'd imagine. You know that term, you've heard it before, you just cannot recall what it means right now. Just whip out the Sake Dictionary and Bingo! You've got it.

Go here to get your copy now.


More information on the following topics can be found at

  • Sake Homebrewing
  • Books on Sake
  • Information on the archives of this newsletter
  • General information related to this publication

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link:
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.

Copyright 1999 - 2009

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