Hida no Kuni Takayama
Photo: Hida no Kuni Takayama

If you want to learn more about sake (and you aren’t fluent in Japanese), the name to know is John Gauntner. His Web site, Sake World, is the on-line encyclopedia of sake. Dive into his newsletter archives, everything you need is there. John shares his profound knowledge and love of sake at monthly sake seminars in Tokyo and each January during a week-long Sake Professional Course in Tokyo and Osaka. Last August, he taught his professional course in New York. I am lucky enough to be participating in John’s course this week.

Check out sake blogs by people promoting fine sake in the United States and notice how John’s name seems to pop up everywhere. For example:

—Beau Timkin, who opened True Sake, the first sake-only shop in the United States, attended John’s week-long course. I met Beau in Tokyo at one of John’s monthly tasting dinners after he had given a testimonial about what he had learned from John.

—Timothy on UrbanSake.com wrote this: “On August 27, 28 and 29, 2007, Mr. John Gaunter—the world famous ‘sake guy’—brought the sake seminar he usually teaches in Japan each year to New York! The first Stateside Sake Professional Course was an event I couldn’t miss!”

—Rick and Hiroko, the founders of Sakaya NYC wrote: “We’ve sought to expand our knowledge under the tutelage of Sake Samurai John Gauntner at his Professional Sake Course in Tokyo, and visited sake breweries, numerous izakaya (sake pubs) and sake shops throughout Japan.”

Mansaku no Hana
Photo: Mansaku no Hana “Manabito”

Over the past year and a half, I have attended nine of John’s monthly sake seminars at Takara sake pub in Yurakucho. Each seminar includes a short lecture on one aspect of sake making, sometimes an additional lecture by Rob Yellin about Japanese ceramics, six amazing sakes to taste/abuse, and a six or seven course gourmet Japanese meal.

At the end of the evening, John asks you to pick your favorite two out of the six sakes, and the group votes. The following were my favorites for each of the sake tastings I attended, with some boozy notes. If you want to know more about the terms used in sake descriptions, get right over to John’s Web site.

June 3, 2006
Lecture: Basics of sake
Nanbu Bijin [Junmai Ginjo] from Iwate: “Custardy and smooth, full mouth feel, vanilla”
Hakurei [Junmai Nama] from Kyoto: “Mellow but fruity, round on tongue, herbal aroma, astringent”

September 9, 2006
Lecture: Nama-zake
Nishi no Seki [Nama Tokubetsu Junmai] from Oita: “Fruit aroma, heavy palate, sweet caramel.”
Daishichi [Kimoto Nama Genshu Junmai] from Fukushima: “Powerful, tangy, high-alcohol after-bite, not much nose, rich flavor, chewable. Goes well with miso dish.”

October 22, 2006
Lecture: Sake rice
Kaika [Tobin-dori Shizuku Genshu Daiginjo] from Tochigi: “Tobin dori being only the top class bottles sent out. Fabulous fruit nose, smooth yet tart, not too rich, a little undertone of smoke?”
Tsukasa Botan [“Senchu Hassasku” Tokubetsu Junmai] from Kochi: “Tasty, tart, dry, yummy, banana, sweet aroma”

November 4, 2006
Lecture: Sake regionality and appellation
Kikuhima [Yamahai Junmai] from Ishikawa: “Rich taste, classic rice nose, not acidic, clean but flavorful”
Urakasumi [Hiyaoroshi Tokubetsu Junmai] from Miyagi: “Rice nose, fresh fall release, some alcohol bite but light, easy, quaffable”

December 2, 2006
No lecture, sake bonenkai
Jokigen [Daiginjo] from Yamagata: “Banana, almost rotten banana (in a good way), some apple, medium body.”
Nishi no Seki [Shizuku Daiginjo] from Oita: “Body, rice nose, delicious fullness, sake love!”

April 7, 2007
Lecture: Sake rice
Hareruya (Hallelujah) [Junmai Ginjo] from Kanagawa: “Matured for 2 years. Rice nose, alcohol nose, subtle taste, smoky undertone.”
Tsukasa Botan [Junmai] from Kochi: “Banana flavor but boozy undertone, sharp first bite but easy to drink”

May 26, 2007
Lecture: Sake brewing process
Kenkon Ichi [Tokubetsu Junmai Genshu] from Miyagi: “Rice nose, strong alcohol in mouth, almost a mushroom and marshmallow taste?” [Sounds weird but it was great]
Mansaku no Hana [“Manabito” Kimoto Junmai] from Akita: “Rice nose with good alcohol mouth feel, an undertone of butter (umami)”

September 22, 2007
Lecture: Koji
Kamikokoro [“Aki-agari” Junmai] from Okayama: “Great nose, banana with a bit of acid, fat, fat, fat and rich”
Tengumai [Yamahai Junmai] from Ishikawa: “Funky, flavorful, delicious”

November 17, 2007
Lecture: Toji, Toji Ryuha, and Kurabito
Kaika [Junmai Ginjo, Hiyaoroshi, Yamahai] from Tochigi: “Creamy rice nose, alcohol bite with funky undertone” [I drew a smiley face.]
Onna Nakase [Junmai Daiginjo] from Shizuoka: “Pepper?! Truffles, bold, fat, growing on me.” [It grew on me so much I voted it my favorite.]

Hmm, I dig those yamahai/kimotos. Give me wild sake! I’ll be back asap with tasting notes from the week and a report about the course.