Nihonshu evangelist preaches heady mix of culture, taste

by Kris Kosaka

John Gauntner appreciates a great destination, but for him, it’s really about the journey. With five books published on sake, and as the only non-Japanese to be recognized as a kikizake meijin (accomplished sake taster) for accuracy in sake tasting, Gauntner is widely considered the leading English-speaking expert on nihonshu.

Gauntner’s journey with sake has taken him into breweries and back streets, onto the pages of Newsweek and Rolling Stone magazines, across America and into Europe, ringside with sumo and alongside the most accomplished brewers and chefs throughout Japan.

For Gauntner, it was one moment on a seemingly unrelated path that diverted his life’s direction. “In the first several months I was here, I wasn’t so interested in sake. I saw the hundreds of bottles lined up in department stores, and I thought, ‘what’s the big deal? They always heat it up and they all taste the same. ‘ ”

But, on New Year’s Day 1989, his first year in Japan, a co-worker and sake aficionado invited Gauntner over and introduced him to six different brands.

“It was the first time I had sake that was not hot — we drank it slightly chilled — it was the first time I had more than one at a time, to compare the brands. They were all premium sake, mid range. And I remember being blown away as to how different they were, how they evolved at every sip, how deep the recesses of the flavor profiles were.

“I was done. From that point on, I was always trying to sample a sake I had never tried before, I was at pubs pointing at the menu, and the bartenders thought, ‘who is this curious foreigner? ‘ ”

This curious foreigner is now the face of sake for the English-speaking world, a consultant for the Japanese government, brewers, and import channels in the United States, the expert who gathers distributors and restaurateurs from around the world for his sake seminars.

Gauntner recently has started a testing and certification program, much like what is in place for wine sommeliers, although tailor-made and suitable for the sake industry. Gauntner hesitates to explain his success or call himself an entrepreneur. “I just wanted to do what I’m interested in. I’m an educator; a promoter. Sometimes they call me nihonshu dendoshi, or sake evangelist.”

Gauntner made his own leap of faith with the sake world: “I always had in my mind, ‘this does not have to work, I may have to leave this path,’ so I was never overly attached to it; I think the flexibility of consciousness has allowed me to make more progress since there was little pressure.

“I also think there was a certain amount of fate involved: The right door has always opened at the right time, and I have always created or developed the things I needed. They all supported the fact that I was supposed to be on this path. The next door opened, the next step became clear without me becoming ponderous about it.”

Gauntner’s conversion to sake and Japan does resemble something like fate. A series of coincidences led the young electrical engineer from Ohio to try the JET Program; an opportunity arose each time he considered leaving Japan, enticing him to stay. One such opportunity returned him to engineering.

“A friend of mine asked me to join his company, a subsidy of Marubeni, as an engineer, because I had learned to speak a little Japanese. I really wasn’t particularly interested in the technology or the materials, but I realized, a chance like this would not come again in my life — the exposure and experience would be irreplaceable.”

His work as an engineer gave him the chance to learn more about his growing passion — sake.

The opportunity to hone his writing skill was another coincidence. Fate led him to a chance meeting with a Japan Times editor; as his expertise on sake became obvious, the writer suggested Gauntner submit an article, leading to a weekly column, “Nihonshu.” It ran for eight years, and gave Gauntner an opportunity to reach a wide audience.

The amount of work in the sake industry slowly increased, and Gauntner finally had to decide between engineering or sake. “I looked at all the sake work I was doing . . . I remember thinking, ‘I have no idea if I am going to make it, if I can make a living off of this if sake will catch on or what will happen. ‘ ”

One thing Gauntner did not want to happen was someone else to pick up where he left off, if he took the easy way and continued with engineering. His journey with sake had reached a significant bridge from passion to career.

Gauntner soon realized there was no other path. Writing opportunities, speaking and educating events, consultant work all increased, growing into the multifaceted career that today defies easy definition.

“What I’m doing now is different than what I was doing three years ago, was different than how I started. Things just pop up, and I do my best to stay ahead of what the rest of the world knows about sake, pay attention to how sake is progressing, what people are understanding or not understanding, and what needs to be done next.”

This ability to anticipate the needs of his audience — sake distributors, restaurateurs, the English-speaking consumer of sake — is a major factor behind Gauntner’s success.

“Sake is still so far behind wine in connoisseurship, in what consumers know about it; yet sake has just as much to offer as wine does, but you must unearth these jewels when it is time. People are still trying to figure out how it’s made, what the different grades are. Eventually we will get into regionalism, the culture behind it, the history behind it, the various personalities behind it, tons of potential for anecdotal expression.”

Although Gauntner enjoys his role as sake dendoshi, he equally appreciates the chance to be an insider to one of Japan’s most revered industries. “I stay very in tune with the industry. I don’t make up my own ways of assessing sake, or make up rules or grades that don’t exist to make it more digestible; I do my best to convey the intricacies of the sake world, but at the same time, I do my best to make it very simple.”

Gauntner also maintains that it is the high quality of sake that gives him a job. “I would have no work if the brewers of this industry did not make such a wonderful product.”

Gauntner’s next step takes him to the United States; he will spend most of May touring distributors and preaching sake. “Every country has its issues with distribution, and taxes, something that bottlenecks the sale of sake,” he explains, “but in the United States, the distributors handle everything.

“So you have these armies of distributors, these salesmen, with big thick catalogs of wine which they understand and know they can sell, and they get 20 or 30 sake and they can’t pronounce the names, they don’t know anything about how they’re made, so they don’t put any effort into selling them. You have much more of a consumer demand than the distributors can handle.”

Gauntner has spent over a decade converting English-speaking consumers to the worship of sake, and he continues to support that interest by providing options.

Looking further down the road, Gauntner sees unending potential for his work in sake. He has started to write about sake in literary form, short stories from his insider’s view. In the mercurial world of nihonshu, one thing is certain: For this sake expert, another door will open.

The online archive of John Gauntner’s Nihonshu column in The Japan Times.