The sake industry is filled with a passionate community of folks who love spreading the good word of nihonshu. Being a part of it has put me in touch with so many great people and it’s been a pleasure to chat to Giulia Maglio, AKA Jiji Sake.
Giulia is a sake sommelier, writer and podcast host dedicated to spreading the love of sake throughout Italy, Japan and beyond. In this interview, we talk about her experiences in Japan, her latest projects and where she sees the sake industry going.
Great to have you on Yamato Magazine Giulia and talking about all things sake. Having listened to the excellent intro episode that you’ve done alongside your podcast partner Cindy Bissig on Sake Unplugged, it’s safe to say you’ve had plenty of unique experiences since coming to Japan. My first question is how did it feel to shave your head to earn a ticket to Japan from your mum then and how does it feel looking back on the experience?
Hi Jamie, thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity and thank you for listening to the podcast, I’m glad you liked it! Coming to Japan has been the best roller coaster of my life. It’s never easy to start a new life from scratch in a new country, especially when it’s so different from your own.
Having said that, I have no regrets at all when it comes to all the experiences I had so far or how I came here the first time. I’ve always been quite impulsive in making my decision and I knew in my heart that that was a unique opportunity for me to come to Japan so I took it. I mean, I can always get my locks back at any moment, right?
That first trip to Japan changed my life completely so I have to thank anyone who made that possible, starting from my mum.
You’ve also said that you started your sake journey by doing food tours. Where did these tours happen and what lessons did running them teach you?
Yes exactly, I started studying about sake while doing food tours. As I said in the podcast, at the beginning I just wanted to know enough to be able to explain to my customers what sake is in a nutshell. But once I peeked into the sake world I fell into the white rabbit hole and I’m not coming back.
I used to do food tours in different areas of Tokyo like Shinjuku, Asakusa, the fish market and so on. I learned tons about the Japanese food culture and I had the opportunity to meet incredible people from all over the world, share with them my love for this country, but also I learned a lot from all of them.
Working as a tour guide is a harder job than it looks and lots of people take it almost for granted. It needs a lot of knowledge, people skills and multitasking but it’s truly rewarding. I’ve enjoyed every single one of my tours and now I’m moving on to give my full attention to sake.
What are your favourite types of nihonshu and do you have a fondness for any particular brands?
As you know, there are many types of sake. I’m not a huge fan of sweet, fruity types like modern sake can sometimes be and I’m not much into overly aromatic types of sake. I like them bold, with a character and a good acidity. Recently I’m really into kimoto and yamahai and I love aged sake.
When it comes to brands it is a really difficult question to answer because for me sake is like music. I might listen to the same artist or maybe just the same song for a month, then leave it to move to a completely different one.
If you ask me today or in a month I might give you a completely different answer. One thing for sure, I love Tenon from Itakura Shuzo, or Itakura Brewery, and not just because I’m brewing sake with them.
You also run a brand called Sake Sisters with your partner. What inspired you to set up Sake Sisters and how would you like to see it grow in the future?
Sake Sisters is an Italian project I’m super excited about! More and more people are enjoying sake in Italy and I want to share my passion for sake as much as I can in my own country too.
This idea of bringing sake in Italy started from me and one of my best friends, who truly is like a sister to me (we met more than 20 years ago). She is a wine sommelier who recently got into sake, also getting her diploma as sake sommelier.
Together we decided to create a space for Italian sake lovers and sake curious that isn’t academic. Our mission is to spread sake knowledge in a fun and dynamic way, to make sake easy and approachable to anyone.
You’ve worked at Itakura Shuzo as a sake brewer and it’d be great to learn how you got involved with the brewery and what the process was like.
I’m currently working for Itakura Shuzo and I’ll be with them till the end of February. Last year I got in touch with them thanks to a friend that works for them part time, and I had the chance to do a short working experience with them.
Then I went back to Tokyo and spent almost one year trying to come back and work with them again. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done so far, mentally and physically, but it’s extremely rewarding and I cannot recommend it enough to all sake lovers out there.
These people put all their love and passion in making sake and this gives sake an extra value that often is underestimated. I have to say, when I came here last year I didn’t know what to expect because sake brewing is a very traditional environment and it’s really a man’s world.
It’s rare to find a woman working in a brewery and especially a foreigner so I didn’t know how they were going to react. Probably because they saw that I was doing my best from the first day, they were very welcoming from the beginning and now I can’t seem to be able to go back to Tokyo.
If you could change one thing about the sake industry, what would it be and why?
As I said, there aren’t many women in the industry so I hope that there will be more and more. This is something that is already happening, slowly maybe, but I see things changing in the industry already.
How do you see the sake industry developing over the next decade?
From an outsider point of view, it might seem that the sake industry is static but in reality I think a lot of things are changing, also thanks to the fact that sake is more and more enjoyed abroad as well. The future of sake is to grow overseas, so it can grow in Japan as well.
Who’re some people in the sake industry you’d recommend following?
My career is at the very beginning, especially if you think about a lot of people who’ve been in the industry for decades, and there are so many wonderful people who work in this industry. I can tell you who helped me being where I am right now, even if they don’t know it, like John Gauntner. Everyone knows John
If one day I’m able to know half of what he knows I’ll consider myself lucky. And a woman I adore for what she’s doing for sake is Simone Maynard or the Sake Mistress. When covid hit the world, to be able to still enjoy sake and help sake breweries around Japan, she started a sake project called Taste with The Toji that virtually takes people to visit sake breweries and give an opportunity for these breweries to get recognised even more for their hard work.
What are your plans for the Sake Unplugged podcast and can you tease any future episodes?
Cindy and I have so many ideas and so many topics we want to explore during the podcast.
There are going to be topics for everyone’s taste and soon there will be guests joining us too. And then who knows where this project is going to take us.
What keeps you invested in nihonshu as a drink and what techniques do you use to build a passion for it among the people you teach and educate?
That is probably the most difficult question. For the first time in my life I’ve found what I want to do, you can really say that I found my passion. But I can’t say exactly what keeps me so invested in it. And I’m afraid that the day I find that reason it’s going to come to an end. Does it make sense? I don’t know, to me it does.
When it comes to hosting sake tastings and courses my goal is to find the perfect balance of knowledge and fun. I want my students to satisfy their thirst for knowledge (pun intended) whilst enjoying the time we spend together.