When it comes to Japanese drinks, sake is perhaps the most recognised alcohol. As simple as it is complex, sake is a beverage of many contradictions, and I didn’t realise how truly interesting the subject was until I picked up John Gauntner’s Sake Confidental: A beyond-the-basics guide to understanding tasting, selection and enjoyment.
Known as the ‘Sake Guy,’ Gauntner is the world’s leading non-Japanese sake educator, and his book is an amazing guide to sake novices (like me), and experts alike. Filled with informative facts and witty anecdotes, this book should be read by anyone who has even a passing interest in Japan.
“To me, perhaps the coolest thing about sake is the way it combines simplicity and complexity. You need to know very little to enjoy it immediately. Yet should you be interested in learning more, the more you look into it, the deeper and deeper the rabbit hole goes.”
Breaking down the world of sake
I was introduced to the book through interviewing certified sake sommelier John Callow, and after reading a few pages, I knew I was hooked. Gauntner’s enthusiasm for sake is infectious and his conversational writing style helps to break down topics that sound complicated, such as the sake brewing process and the differences between junmai and non-junmai sake.
Each part of the book is split into helpful chapters that take readers through the sake basics and more specialised forms like tokubetsu (special sake) and nigorizake (cloudy sake). Gauntner covers the full history of the industry and gives his honest opinion on controversial subjects like the nihonshu-do, the Sake Meter Value that is used to denote the density of sake relative to water.
“Although the nihonshu-do is interesting and readily available information, it is best to not place too much importance on it. It is certainly not worth factoring into a decision on which sake to choose. Sweet or dry may be something to consider, but to reiterate, the nihonshu-do alone will not tell you much about that except in its extreme manifestations.”
Gauntner’s candidness doesn’t stop there. He goes into depth about the complicated distribution system of how sake brewers get their rice and touches on why the sake world is extremely polarised, and how greater cooperation between large and small breweries can make a difference. His passion can be felt in every word.
Tackling technical concepts
While reading the book, I found myself learning about wider topics, such as food and sake pairings. Gauntner basically says there are no rules and the way forward is to experiment. An interesting pairing that he does suggest is to combine Mizbasho ‘Early Bloom’ ginjo with a range of food that includes grilled white fish, lemon-drizzled grilled pork, baked salmon and lime sherbet.
“The most reliable way to know how to pair a sake is to taste it. Forget the label. Smell it and taste it, look at the aromas, flavours, acidity, intensity, texture, breadth, weight, and more. Then consider which aspects will dovetail or contrast in mutually complimentary ways with your food.”
“Most important, do not be afraid to violate perceived authenticity. Do not limit yourself by saying ‘I want to do it the way they do it in Japan.’ Violate away! And enjoy sake’s incredible pairing potential with food.”
Sake for vegans was another topic I found intriguing. Gauntner explains that although sake isn’t made with animal products, it’s filtered with charcoal and some breweries use an animal-based gelatin to remove the charcoal. Sake that hasn’t been filtered with charcoal is called muroka, meaning it is vegan friendly.
Throughout the book, Gauntner features different types of sake to try and describes their flavour and aroma in detail. But I can’t think of anything that isn’t covered in this extensive guide. Want to know about the price of sake? Interested to know how sake is brewed? Do you want to learn about the different varieties of rice that are used? Fancy learning how to improve your sake tasting ability? Gauntner has all the answers and more.
Whether you like alcohol or not, Sake Confidential is a book that I’d recommend to any Japanese enthusiast. It’s inspired me to try more sake in future and it could do the same for you. Buy it on Amazon today.