No other non-Japanese person on earth has achieved what John Gauntner has in the realm of sake. The Ohio native, who now lives in Japan, is the world’s only non-Japanese certified master of sake tasting, and he holds the coveted and difficult-to-attain title of Sake Expert Assessor from the Japan National Research Institute of Brewing. He has written extensively about sake for the English-reading world, including five books on the subject. As follow up to our profile of one of New York’s most notable sake dens, Sakagura, we asked Gauntner to weighed in on New York’s sake scene, how to buy for yourself, and what to eat when you’re drinking rice wine.
Sakagura is world-renowned and a veteran of New York’s sake scene, and it’s been around since 1996. How far back does the NYC sake scene go?
Just how far back it goes is hard to say, but I began going to NYC on a yearly (at least) basis in ’98, I think, so that is 15 years. Back then, Decibel was doing lots of sake too, but Sakagura had an even more monstrous lead on the other sake pubs in town. No one does what they do, but other places do their own thing better.
When you travel to New York and want a sip and taste of Japan, where do you go?
Honestly, it is different every time. Sakagura never disappoints, but lately I like Yopparai and Sakamai.
When we are at the sake bar or liquor store, what are we mostly likely to find in terms of sake variety?
Almost all grades and about 700 brands are represented in New York City.
Can you give us a breakdown of the sake categories?
In general, the more polished the rice–the more it is milled down to the starchy white center from its brown husk–the higher the quality of the sake produced. The super-premium Ginjo sakes are made with rice milled down to about half the original size. The quality of the rice, the degree to which it is milled, and the labor involved in brewing will affect the price, so it’s fair to assume the more expensive bottles are made by hand using high-quality, finely polished rice. There are six categories within this premium range of sakes, and words like Junmai, Honjozo, Ginjo, and Daiginjo are indicative of premium sake. The vast majority of sake–about three-quarters of what’s on the market–is non-premium sake. While certainly enjoyable, these sakes lack the subtle elegance of the premium sakes.
What are three things we need to know about sake?
1. Sake is fairly priced 90 percent of the time!
2. Drink something with the word Ginjo on the label and you are drinking in the top 10 percent of the category, although non-Ginjo is great too.
3. Most premium stuff is better young and chilled, but there are exceptions.
What are some tips to better enjoy sake when we drink it?
Take notes of the flavors and aromas you sense. This will really further your appreciation of sake and your understanding of it as well.
What’s your favorite region for sake?
What’s the Rolls-Royce of sake? The Toyota Corolla?
No such thing, really. And that is the truth.
How do you feel about $8 bottles of Geikkikan?
They are a great deal for $8! Certainly enjoyable for what they are.
What about sake cocktails? I’ve seen fun pairings with St. Germain and lemonade, sake martinis and sake bloody Marys–are those a good use for that cheap Geikkikan?
Once you mix sake with something else, you can no longer taste the sake. As one who promotes sake as a connoisseur beverage, it is hard for me to tell people to do something that will certainly mask the flavor.
Is there any advantage to maturing a bottle of sake?
Generally not. While maturing sake can be enjoyable, it is best to leave that to the producer and to drink your sake soon after you buy it.
Is there a premium for sake made with pre-nuclear disaster rice?
No, there is no such premium. Rice is used just after being grown, and all rice grown anywhere near the area of the accident is tested before being released to the market. All sake (and almost all consumed products) from that region are tested as well.
How do you feel about sake on non-Japanese restaurant menus?
I am fine with it of course, but what I choose will depend on what else is on the menu. I would lean neither toward nor away from it but drink what I would enjoy the most from what is available.
Rice wine is a misnomer, right? Sake is fermented and brewed like beer.
That’s right. Sake is brewed from rice. It is not a simple fermentation like wine, nor is it a distilled beverage. It is closer to beer than anything else, but it is nonetheless unique. Because the rice husk is milled away before sake making begins, the grain cannot be malted like barley is for brewing beer. So to get the necessary enzymes, a mold called koji mold is added to steamed rice. The mold grows in and around grains of rice, converting starches into sugars and setting the stage for sake.
What are some of the best sake pairings?
Sake has very low acid compared to wine and no tannins at all, so a mismatch is almost impossible. But the short answer to your question would be grilled fish. A startlingly great pairing is pasta with a cream sauce and crushed grilled bacon sprinkled liberally on top.