Japanese Version

SAKE お酒 by John Gauntner

Sake of the Month – June, 2011: Fukucho “Moon on the Water” Junmai Ginjo

Fukucho - John Gauntner June 2011 REV

Steve here: The world of sake brewing was traditionally a man's world. Tell us about a sake made by a woman.

John Gauntner: How about the Junmai Ginjo called Fukucho, “Moon on the Water?” This sake hails from Hiroshima Prefecture and is brewed by Miho Imada, the daughter of the company’s president and owner-inherit. Imada took over the operation when she realized that if she did not take it on, no one would. Even a few decades ago, a woman would not have even been allowed to enter the kura (brewery,) much less be a brewer; much, much less be the toji (master brewer).

Imada’s kura sits just down the hill from the remains of the Sanzabura Miura kura, where modern ginjo brewing techniques were developed in Hiroshima almost a century ago, launching Hiroshima into sake prominence.

Both Imada’s skill and style are clearly expressed in her sake. Though she makes a wide range of styles, this “Moon on the Water” is light, fruity, bright and crisp, and often boasts anise and grapefruit. Very, very refreshing chilled as an aperitif!

Steve: Is it for sale in the west?

John: Like all of the sakes of the month on this blog, Moon on the Water is available in the U.S. It is a wonderful sake that I hope people will try.

Steve: Changing the subject, tell us about nama-zake.

John: Nama-zake is unpasteurized sake. Many variations on the pasteurization process itself, lead to many variations in nama-zake, the terms that define it, and the sake behind those terms.

To be very clear: nama-zake is NOT necessarily better than its pasteurized equivalent. Many people like to promote nama as better, rare, fresher, and more enjoyable. While nama is less common and can be very enjoyable, the truth is it is just different, neither better nor worse than pasteurized sake. It is simply different.

Nama-zake is usually lively, aromatic and bold with lots of cut wood, fruity and permeating aromas. Quite nice! However, please note that aromas can often be a veil between your senses and the depths of the sake. Restated, often we can experience more subtlety and depth from pasteurized sake than nama-sake.

In the end, it is all about individual preference. If you enjoy it, nama or not, it is good. End of story.

Steve: Thanks John. See you in July!

Remember, the sake that John reviews are available in the U.S.


John Gauntner is one of the world's most celebrated sake experts. He is an author, newspaper columnist and international lecturer. See John's website at http://www.sake-world.com.

Sake of the Month – May, 2011: Kanbara Bride of the Fox

John Gauntner May 2011 Bottle REV

Steve here: Warm weather is back. The days are getting longer. What great sake do you have in mind for May, John?

John: You will love this one, Steve: Kanbara Bride of the Fox. This Junmai Ginjo takes its name from the famous fox-bride festival held annually in this small town in Niigata, to celebrate a local legend about mysterious lights that have appeared on nearby Mt. Kirin; brewed with locally-grown Gohyakumangoku rice.

Enjoy intense aromas of grilled nuts, pistachio, and a hint of white chocolate. Flavors of nuts and ripe honeydew explode at the front. It finishes crisp with a hint of lingering sweetness.

And, for those interested in such things, Stephen Tanzer has given this sake 91 points! In 2007, he wrote:

"Very pale color, deeper than the Wandering Poet but less brilliant. High-pitched, nuanced nose combines melon, lime, mint, nuts and dusty fresh herbs. Juicy and intense, with assertive flavors of citrus fruit, melon, herbs, spices and nuts. Not a heavy style but boasts impressive palate presence and plenty of character. The long finish hints at melon and nuts."

Steve: What do you think about the adding alcohol as part of the production process of some brands of sake?

John: Junmai means pure rice, and that word on the bottle means the sake was made without adding any distilled alcohol. While this seems intrinsically better to some folks, in truth, adding a very small amount of alcohol to a sake can be a very, very good thing.

Why? Because they add it just before the final pressing, and since flavorful and aromatic compounds are soluble in alcohol, by temporarily raising the overall alcohol content they can pull out more flavor and aroma from the fermented rice. Also, shelf life and stability can improve as well. Note: they add water again later to bring the alcohol content back down to normal, so such sake is not fortified. There are a few purists out there that feel that pure rice sake is naturally better.

Steve: Thanks John. Talk to you in June!

Remember, the sake that John reviews are available in the U.S.


John Gauntner is one of the world's most celebrated sake experts. He is an author, newspaper columnist and international lecturer. See John's website at http://www.sake-world.com.

January, 2016

O-toso: New Year's Sake – A drink on the day keeps the doctor away




It is a rare occasion and ceremony that does not include some sake in Japan, and that harbinger of renewal, New Year’s Day, is no exception. Although sake figures prominently in O-shogatsu (New Year’s) celebrations from morning to night, opening the year with a prayer for health in the form of drinking O-toso is perhaps the most interesting.


Just what is O-toso? It’s sake that has been specially prepared by steeping a mixture of herbs in it for several hours. Drinking it with family in ceremonial fashion first thing on New Year’s day is said to ward off sickness for the entire year ahead, as well as invite peace within the household.The tradition of O-toso originally came from China, and originally the mixture consisted of eight herbs. Things have naturally changed slightly over the years, and some of the herbs have changed as a couple in the original concoction were deemed too potent. But most remain true to the original recipe.


Included in the mixture are cinnamon, rhubarb and sanshou (Japanese pepper), as well as a few not commonly seen in the west, like okera (atractylodis rhizome) and kikyou (platycodi radix). It’s stuff you never knew you needed, much less existed.


O-toso was adopted in Japan back in the ninth century during the reign of the Saga Emperor in the Heian era. Back then, on December 19 of each year the herbs were placed in a triangular bag and hung from the branch of a peach tree hanging over water. At four in the morning on New Year’s Day, the herbs were put into sake and steeped for several hours before being partaken of in the morning.


During the Edo era (1603-1868), the custom became common among common folk as pharmacies would give out the O-toso mixture (known as O-tososan) to patients as year-end gifts. This practice continued to some degree until about 20 years ago.


The custom has evolved into a fairly ritualized form over the years. After morning greetings on O-shogatsu, the O-toso is drunk using a special set of three lacquered vermillion cups sitting on a small dais. The three cups fit inside each other, and are drunk from in order of size: small, medium then large. It is poured not from a normal sake tokkuri, but from a special vessel resembling a kyusu (teapot).


The O-toso is drunk in order from the youngest in the family to the oldest with the intention that the older members of the family can share in the joy of youth imparted as the cups are passed.


Drinking O-toso is said to ward off infectious diseases like colds for the year. Folklore dictates that if just one member of the family drinks O-toso, everyone in the family will be free from illness. If the entire family drinks it, the whole village will remain free from illness for the year.


Making it at home is easy, provided you know where to go and pick your wild bekkatsu (smilax China), bofu (ledebouriellae radix) and uzu (aconite root). Combine those with the five mentioned above and you’re golden.


A simpler solution if you happen to be in Japan, or near a Japanese food store outside of Japan, is to go and pay just a wee bit indeed for an elaborately packaged teabag of O-tososan. On New Year’s eve, stick that puppy in about 300 ml of sake and let it steep for seven or eight hours. It will be ready first thing in the morning.


It is also possible to use mirin (a kind of cooking sake), which has less alcohol, or a mixture of mirin and sake. While this may make it taste a bit sweeter, the taste of O-toso made with good sake is not bad at all. A bit medicinal and slighter bitter, perhaps, but interesting.


Also, should guests visit during the first three days of the new year, they are first given a glass of O-toso, and after that a glass of sake.


As is the fate for many traditional rituals, the O-toso ceremony is not as commonly practiced these days as it has been in the past. Many younger people, in fact, may not know all that much about it. Although all things run their natural course, it would be a pity if O-toso were to totally fade away.


Those not in Japan should be able to find the O-toso teabags at drugstores or grocery stores in Japanese neighborhoods.


Another common type of sake enjoyed at New Year’s time is taru-zake. Like O-toso, taru-zake is not a brand of sake, and almost all brewers make some. Taru-zake is made by taking regular sake and letting it sit in a taru, or wooden cask for (usually) a couple of days. It then takes on a fairly strong and pleasant cedar taste and aroma. While this usually overpowers any subtler flavors and aromas (which is why premium sake is rarely used for taru-zake), it can be very enjoyable and tasty.


Just after New Year’s Day, when people gather for traditional year-opening ceremonies in communities, families and companies, taru-zake is often the sake of choice. Very often, taru-zake is enjoyed from the small wooden boxes called masu, and with a pinch of salt in one corner.


For those outside of Japan, both taru-zake and masu are available if you poke around. At least in North America, one recommended brand of taru-zake is Ichi no Kura from Miyagi, although at least one domestic brewer makes some as well.


Be it O-toso, Taru-zake, or something else, all the best to everyone in 2016!


Sake Hot or Cold

Sake Rice

Sake – Nanbu

August 2011

My Conversation with John Gauntner



John Gauntner is one of the world’s most celebrated sake experts. He is an author, newspaper columnist and international lecturer. See John’s website at http://www.sake-world.com.

March, 2015


……..By the Foodies' Foodie, Mora Chartrand-Grant………..


Sake, as ubiquitous as the cherry blossom in spring, is perhaps Japan’s greatest contribution to the beverage world-a national beverage and elixir to many, the drink of the gods, and a virtual unknown and misunderstood beverage to most Americans. But what was once viewed as a pale, nearly flavorless alcoholic beverage has recently been embraced by an adoring American public looking for an alternative to wine or beer. Sake no longer is only found on Japanese restaurant menus. Its most recent incarnation has it holding court among fine wines at upscale, cutting-edge restaurants on both coasts.


Averse to calling sake a trend, I am convinced that it is here to stay. Sake has made its mark and found an audience that is beginning to understand its subtleties of taste, aroma, and regions. It is no longer enough to be knowledgeable about wine ( or even microbrews ), but the true gourmet and epicure now are adding sake to their repertoire. Sake is making inroads into American life at a respectable rate.


So just what is sake and how did it come to play such a leading role in Japan’s culture? Let’s talk about the letter first. Sake has been known since the down of civilization, and more likely since rice was first introduced to Japan from the Asian continent about 2000 years ago. It is an alcoholic beverage produced from rice and brewed much the same way beer is, from barley and wheat. But sake is termed a rice wine because its 16% alcohol content is similar to wine.


The first written record of sake in Japan dates from 300 A.D. Historic archives submit that this sake was “chewing in the mouth sake” ( kuchikami no sake ). As unappealing as it sounds, rice was chewed by villagers and then spat into a wooden tub where it fermented with the help of an element in the saliva. This early sake had the consistency of oatmeal, which necessitated eating your sake rather than drinking it. Sake’s primary use during ancient times was for religious and social purpose in the Imperial Court. In fact, many temples and shrines used their rice-growing lands and monks to establish their own sake brewing operations. Over the centuries brewing methods became.

Febrary, 2015



Renowned sake expert John Gauntner answers:  At what temperature should you enjoy sake?

As with all things sake-related, there is a long answer and short answer.

Short Answer: Most good sake should be enjoyed slightly chilled. Cheaper sake is served warm.

Long Answer: Indeed, sake was traditionally served warmed. This was related to the fact that sake was, until about  30 or 40 years ago, much, much rougher, fuller, sweeter and woodier than it is now. Warming suited it much better back then.

Wooden (cedar) tanks were used for brewing for centuries, slowly being phased out in the early part of the 20th century. Also, before glass bottles, for centuries sake was then stored in wooden casks (also cedar). As such, they took on a tremendously woody flavor and aroma. While this might have been enjoyable, today’s fine fragrances and subtle flavors would be bludgeoned out of existence by such wood (although you can still enjoy such sake today; it is called “taru-zake”).

But in the end, one big reason sake was warmed in the old days was that it was woodier and rougher, and warming masked a lot of the less-than-refined aspects.

However, about 30 to 40 years ago, things began to change in the sake-brewing world. Brewing technology and the availability of new strains of sake rice (and the equipment to properly handle it) and new pure yeast strains  led to sake with bold and lively taste and fragrance profiles. Much more delicate and fragile sake also came about, with fruit and flowery essences all of a sudden becoming part of the equation. Sake like this would be effectively neutered of the very qualities it was brewed to exude, if heated. Today, sake is brewed in stainless steel, ceramic-lined tanks, and stored in bottles. Rice milling technology is immeasurably better than it was even just 30 or 40 years ago. Most premium sake today is delicate, fragrant, and elegant. To heat such sake would be to destroy precisely the flavors and fragrances the brewer worked so hard to have you enjoy!

So: Most good sake should be enjoyed slightly chilled. How chilled? The short answer: like white wine or even a little warmer. Much sake peaks in flavor just below room temperature. The long answer: like wine and any other premium beverage, each sake will be different at even slightly different temperatures. Every sake will appeal to some people at one temperature, and other people at another temperature. What appeals to you most is the best temperature for that sake, for you, on that day.

Sake should never be served too cold. When sake is over-chilled you cannot taste anything. Sure, flaws would be covered up, but so would more refined aspects of the sake, as nothing is discernible.  If someone tells you to enjoy sake ice cold, it is because they know their sake is inferior. To propagate such an untruth is unethical and unfair to brewers of fine sake.

But wait! It is not all that simple! The long answer continues.The truth is,  there is plenty of good sake, premium ginjo and sometimes daiginjo even,  that goes quite well when gently warmed. (But never too hot!) Plenty indeed. It is too easy, in this era of chilled premium ginjo sake, to overlook how fine warm sake can be, especially in the winter.

So, how do you know whether to warm a sake or to serve it chilled? How can you tell  – from the label or otherwise – if a sake will be good when warmed, or better chilled? Fortunately or unfortunately, it is purely a matter of personal preference.

Many sakagura (sake breweries) will tell you that a particular sake of theirs is especially tasty when warmed. Some list that information right on the label. Also, tasting a wide variety of sake at a wide variety of temperatures will soon make it clear which flavor profiles appeal to you at warm temperatures and which do not. So, not surprisingly, the more you taste, the more you will know. Recommendations of friends, restaurateurs, or shopkeepers can also can be useful in knowing which temperatures to serve a sake. But in the end, you have to just taste a lot and figure it out for yourself.



John Gauntner is one of the world's most celebrated sake experts. He is an author, newspaper columnist and international lecturer. See John's website at http://www.sake-world.com. 

November, 2014



John Gauntner writes: 

Rice Distribution in the Sake World

One of the more idiosyncratic aspects of the sake world is the distribution system via which brewers get their rice. It certainly is not simple, and at one time it probably made sense. Certainly there are many that benefit from it – both brewers and farmers – and others for whom it serves them less. And, of course, there are those that have the means and cleverness to work around it if need be. Let’s look at it a bit more closely. 

The place to begin is to realize that sake brewers do not grow their own rice. Fundamentally speaking, since just after World War II, companies, i.e. business entities are not permitted to grow rice. All rice is grown and sold by individual farmers. Business entities are basically not allowed to be involved. Things have changed a little bit recently and there are some exceptions, but basically sake brewers cannot own their own rice fields, or grow their own rice. 

Why is this the case? It is to prevent the reconsolidation of farmland. Long ago, owners of huge tracts of land controlled things, rather than the peasants living on it and growing on it. For reasons beyond my comprehension (although my sense of common decency says it’s not cool) this is not a stable situation economically. Regardless of the reasoning, this keeps rice plots spread out and small, with the average being about 1.65 acres, compared to farms typically 160 times that in the US. 


This lead to the creation of agricultural cooperatives, about which more could be written than the scope of this newsletter can hope to contain. But in short, local farmers have their rice distributed to the market through local agricultural co-ops, from whom they are often obligated to buy fertilizers, insecticides and more. But these co-ops then negotiate prices and secure livelihood for the local farmers and others. They are also necessarily competitive organizations, and do their best to promote the brands of rice that grow best in their region. 

And for many brewers, this is the easiest way to go. They order a certain rice grown in a certain region, and almost always, they will get it. They cannot specify just who the grower is, just the variety, inspected grade, and region. And while sometimes shortages do occur, almost always they get what they ordered. 

Then, a scant 15 years ago or so, laws changed that allowed brewers to bypass the co-ops and form contracts with farmers to buy rice directly. This is great for a number of reasons. They can “see the faces” of the producers, dictate a bit more about how it is grown if they want to, and see it at every step of its evolution. However, there are downsides as well to going with single producers via contract. 

For example, what if there is a bad year, and harvested amounts are low? When one buys from an agricultural co-op that draws from many growers, it is easy to cover those shortages. Sure, somebody somewhere gets stiffed, but it’s a game of supply and demand, and who orders first. 

But if they buy from one farmer drawing from just a few fields, a bad year means less rice, which must then be bought later, elsewhere, and may be neither the quality level or price that was initially sought. 

And what if there is a bumper crop? While that sounds great, it might not be. Again, buying from a co-op is no problem. “You ordered this much, you get this much. The surplus is our problem.”  But if you buy it via contract on a field, if they have bumper crop, you are stuck with paying for and then dealing with all that excess rice that grew on that field. After all, the grower reserved it all for you. And while you might be tempted to think, “Well, just make more sake with it!” it is not that simple practically, economically or even legally.

Of course, there are ways to work around both of the above issues; the point here is simply to show the pros and cons of each, and how big an issue procuring rice is for sake brewers. 

Only about 1.4% of all rice grown in Japan is sake rice. Obviously, it is not a cash crop, nor the priority for most farmers, or the co-ops. Wide plains are reserved for more lucrative-to-grow table rice, and often sake rice gets relegated to the harder-to-till parcels. Not always, mind you; but often. 


Also, a few years back, it became legal for brewers themselves (actually, some business entities) to grow rice. One would think, “Hey, now this changes everything, duddn’t it!” But in reality, very few have begun to do that. A few have, and surely others welcome the idea in concept. But gearing up to farm when you do not have the people, experience and tools is major hassle, and on top of that, the relationships with those that can do it well are in place. Let it ride. 

But in truth there are many patterns. One brewer I know well maintains about 25 fields around his region, small parcels of land that are owned by folks too old to work them anymore. My brewer friend rents them for very little, and it is win-win as he gets to grow his rice his way, and he keeps the land arable too, which the owners like. 

“It has its attendant issues,” he lamented hesitatingly. “Often, those old folks can be a pain in the ass.” 

Why then, I suggested, do you not just buy the land from them? The terseness of the wave of his hand with which he dismissed that suggestion clearly conveyed its ridiculousness. 

“Land prices are high; profit margins on rice and sake are miniscule. It would take me well over a full century to reap a return on my investment!” 

So while many brewers might the romantic notion of growing their own sake rice, it is often not a practical option. 


As rice distribution really is a murky and vague topic, let us look at it again in next month’s newsletter, when we will see how government allocations of land, and the subsidies related to that, can significantly affect rice supplies. That, and more murky rules. For now, suffice it to say that procuring rice for sake in Japan is significantly different from procuring grapes for wine, anywhere.


John Gauntner is one of the world's most celebrated sake experts. He is an author, newspaper columnist and international lecturer. See John's website at http://www.sake-world.com. 

September, 2013

Sake-Nanbu Bijin Southern Beauty 

Nanbu Bijin

Steve here: Cooler weather is upon us. What do you suggest for September, John?

John Gauntner Nanbu Bijin is a junmai ginjo sake that hails from Iwate prefecture, up north in Tohoku, a region where sake is usually light and crisp and much more fine grained than its big-boned counterparts from western Japan.

For decades Nanbu Bijin was brewed by one of the most famous toji (master brewers) in the industry. His retiring a decade ago might have been some cause for concern had he not diligently trained his underlings so as to not miss a beat when he left. (Not all toji do that!) That, and the technical prowess and sheer enthusiasm of the son of the owner make this one of the best values on the market.

The explosive nose of this medium-bodied sake exhibits slight wood spice and floral aromas that quickly move towards apple compote and lively citrus notes akin to lime rind. From green fruit flavors upfront to a creamy mid-palate with some super ripe cantaloupe and honeydew, the mild acidity allows the minerality to exert itself on the finish.

Steve: How has this and other Tohoku breweries been doing since the tsunami?

John: The name Iwate is surely familiar as a locale that suffered massive loss in the earthquake and tsunami that occurred last March 11. Nanbu Bijin was spared the brunt of the damage due to their specific location. However, soon after that, the aforementioned son of the owner (he will inherit the brewery in time) used his social media skills to tell the entire country to help the Tohoku region by eating and drinking Tohoku food and sake. “If you continue to show self-restraint, you will hurt us more than honor us, as we need the economic stimulus badly here in Tohoku.”

Most of the hard-hit breweries were in Iwate and its neighbor to the south, Miyagi. A few were totally destroyed by one of the natural calamities or the other, dozens and dozens suffered damage to some extent.

However, we can take great inspiration from the fact that every brewery has vowed to start again and rise from the ashes. Let us support them by drinking not just Tohoku sake, but all sake!

Steve: Thanks John, for another great suggestion.

Remember, the sake that John reviews are available in the U.S.


John Gauntner is one of the world's most celebrated sake experts. He is an author, newspaper columnist and international lecturer. See John's website at http://www.sake-world.com.

Feburary, 2012

Sake of the month: February, 2012 is Takatenjin –Soul of the Sensei


Steve here: Hello John. We’re ready to hear about your sake pick-of-the-month for February?

John: This month I have chosen Takatenjin, a Junmai Daiginjo that is a generally light, complex and fragrant.

Steve: Where does it come from?

John: Takatenjin comes from the same brewery that makes the inimitable Kaiun in Shizuoka Prefecture, on the coast, just south of Tokyo. The former toji (brewmaster,) Shokichi Hase, had worked there 40 years before passing a couple summers ago. He was a very famous toji, known as one of the "Noto Toji no Shitennoh," or "Four Guardians of Heaven” of the prestigious Noto Toji Guild. Toji guilds are small groups of notable toji whose main objectives are to educate and train successors, to refine skills, and to uphold and improve the reputation of the sake from their region. Of the many ways Hase excelled was by training his successors so that the brewery did not miss a beat after his passing.

Takatenjin Junmai Daiginjo starts with prominent melon aromas, with a mildly viscous touch and an alluring gentle sweetness. It is impeccably clean and punctuated with a spicy, white pepper note and is easy to drink all by itself, or with less oily grilled fish.

Steve: By the way, isn’t this now the main sake brewing season?

John: Yes, the brewing season is about to peak with daiginjo brewing. At all sake brewing kura, the pattern is the same: start with the rougher sake for the first few batches, then make the best sake in the middle of the season (which is now), and finish the season with lower grade sake.

Steve: Why is that?

John: There are many reasons. Because each year is different, toji and brewers need to feel out the rice of that particular year. They ask how it dissolves; how fast it absorbs water. They look at the starch or fat or protein or potassium content. By starting with less premium sake they can get a feel of how the year's rice is behaving.

They can also get a feel for the year's climate, the year's brewing staff and the condition of the stuff in the brewery. Once all this is ascertained they can begin premium sake brewing with a bit more confidence.

And, of course, there is ambient temperature to consider. It is warmer in the early fall and early spring, but much colder now, in the dead of winter. Ginjo and other premium sake need colder fermentation temperatures, which does not come until now.

As the saying amongst brewers goes, "Every year, it's back to first grade." That is true for at least the first few batches. Then most of them jump straight to university.

Steve: Thanks John! See you next month!

August, 2011

August 2011 Sake of the Month: Ginga Shizuku Divine Droplets Junmai Daiginjo

Divine Droplets

Steve here: OK, John, what is a great sake suggestion for August, the hottest month of the year?

John Gauntner: Ginga Shizuku is from Hokkaido, from the very center of Japan’s northernmost island. The city, Asahikawa, holds the record for the coldest recorded temperatures in Japan, which makes it a great place to brew sake!

This top-grade junmai daiginjo is made with great rice, water, and yeast, but also it is drip-pressed. In other words, the sake is separated from the fermenting mash by allowing the sake to drip out with no pressure applied to the bags. This ensures more delicate, lively, vibrant flavors and aromas.

Says the importer: Spice, minerality, and banana skin dominate the aroma profile of this shizuku-pressed sake. Medium-bodied with a clean impact, the flavors run the gamut of a well-crafted Junmai-Daiginjo- melons, herbs, vanilla essence and concentrated mineral flavors that keep the sake focused well into its long, ethereal finish. Truly one of the 'Rolls-Royces' of sake.

Fruity Aromas From Rice?

When approaching one's first ginjo or daiginjo, it is not uncommon for someone to do an olfactory double-take. “What the… Banana? Melon? Apple? Strawberry even! How does this…” they exclaim, incredulously poking a finger toward the top of a glass of sake,” come from rice? Huh?”

The answer is yeast. Sake yeast takes the sugars and other compounds that come from the rice and ferments them to reveal a whole host of aromatic compounds like esters and more that give us that alluring array of fruit and more. No, the brewers do not add anything. No, it has nothing do with fruit nearby the rice fields or kura. No, it is not modern engineering. It is more like ancient craftsmanship.

A line to remember: more than anything else, yeast contributes to aromas, and more than anything else, rice leads to flavor.

Steve: Thanks John. See you in September!

Remember, the sake that John reviews are available in the U.S.


John Gauntner is one of the world's most celebrated sake experts. He is an author, newspaper columnist and international lecturer. See John's website at http://www.sake-world.com.

April, 2011

Sake of the Month, April, 2011: Ama no To–Heaven’s Door

April 2011 Sake asamai-heavens-door-720-largest-clean REV

Steve here: John! What is your sake recommendation this month?

John: For April, I suggest that you try Ama no To, from Akita Prefecture, snow country in the far north of Honshu Island.

This sake takes its name from an ancient poem about how the world began. It is a fascinating brew from a fascinating kura, with a fascinating toji (master brewer). Master brewer, chef, photographer, rice farmer, published author, and all around interesting guy, Yasuichi Moriya, is certainly well rounded. And his sake rocks, to boot. On top of that, they are adamant about using only local rice. Like, really local rice– all of the rice they use is grown in fields that can be seen from the roof of their brewery.

This tokubetsu junmai is laced with fig and butter, with a slightly rich and sweet touch to the flavor that seems perfectly in place. A drier and clean finish ties it all together. Very enjoyable with salty grilled salmon, or bacon-garnished cream pasta.

Steve: As part of our on-going sake education, please tell us about the different ways of pressing sake.

John: After a 20-day to 35-day fermentation, a tank of sake looks like a thin white milky slurry, but tastes and smells just wonderful. The final big step is to pass that mash through a mesh to remove the rice solids. Most English texts call this step “pressing” since there is a charcoal filtration step later. Sake can be pressed by machine, and 99% of all sake is done this way. The machines do a fine job. However, it can also be pressed by putting the mash into long cotton bags and laying those bags in a deep wooden box, then cranking the lid into that box to squeeze the sake out and leave the lees in the bags. This is more exquisite, lively and aromatic. And more expensive.

It can also be drip-pressed, with the aforementioned bags being suspended allowing the sake inside to drip out, with no pressure applied. This is as extravagant as it gets. Known as “shizuku” sake, it is aromatic, fine-grained and refined. And expensive!

Steve: Remember, the sake that John reviews are available in the U.S.


John Gauntner is one of the world's most celebrated sake experts. He is an author, newspaper columnist and international lecturer. See John's website at http://www.sake-world.com.

Author: stevebeimel

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