Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Sake Confidential" book review: Straight talk about sake

The best sakes tend to come from cold places
Intro to sake books haven't been as successful as intro to wine books, and not only because wine is much more popular.

Sake books tend to get bogged down early in describing how sake is made. It's an important question, but the answer isn't simple, nor does it have much to do with the really key questions about sake, such as How do I buy a good sake? How long does it last on the shelf? Does the region matter?

Also, many people who are interested in sake know something about it already. Very basic intro books won't interest them, but if a sake book is too advanced, the market for it is tiny.

John Gauntner gets around both these problems by writing "Sake Confidential" in a straight-talking, behind-the-scenes style.

After a brief 13-page introduction, he moves right into a series of opinionated essays that could be blog posts on "Sake secrets."

No English-language writer knows sake better than Gauntner. An American who lives in Kamakura, Japan, Gauntner wrote a sake column for the Japan Times newspaper for eight years. He published an intro-to-sake book in 2002 called "The Sake Handbook."

Gauntner's essays, each titled, "The Truth About ... (topic)," range widely over subjects including flavors, production, the business end, social and environmental issues, and more. It's an easy book to flip through to find something of interest at your level of knowledge.

As with wine, sake is harder than it seems to reduce to generalities. As an example, many Americans love expensive, aromatic, highly milled, pure sakes. But many Japanese connoisseurs prize a style (honjozo) in which brewer's alcohol is added to give the sake a crisp, light, less aromatic character. Who's to say which is inherently better? It's like saying a blockbuster Cabernet is always better than an austere Assyrtiko.

But points-chasers exist in the sake world also. Gaunter writes,
I recall being at one promotional tasting overseas, and up came a woman who asked for the most expensive daiginjo we were pouring. In fact, I had heard her ask the same thing of the brewer next to me. 'I only drink the best,' she explained with conviction. Before I had a chance to ask, 'In whose opinion?' or 'Based on what criteria?' she had scampered off to the next 'best' one down the line.

Gauntner's essays, while straightforward, are more nuanced than that. With access to the finest of sakes, he remains a fan of the well-made proletarian brews.

"I, too, was once a chilled ginjo snob," he writes in the essay The Truth About Warm Sake. "When I first got into premium sake, for several years I drank nothing but ginjo, and never any way but chilled. As I spent more time with brewers, though, I was often chided for my lack of imagination. 'Listen kid,' I recall being told. 'You wanna know what a good sake is? A good sake is one that can be enjoyed both chilled and warm'."

Like wine, sake can be an industrial product, or it can be made by hand
In that essay, he explains why hot sake is still omnipresent (tradition) and which sakes are better warm (earthy styles like yamahai and kimoto).

In "The Truth About Sake Purity," he answers 21st century questions: junmai sakes are gluten-free, and unfiltered sake (muroka) is vegan.

If you're interested in why the sake industry can't get its act together, or whether women are more welcomed now in breweries, Gauntner has answers.

One of my favorite anecdotes is in "The Truth About Pairing Food and Sake in Japan." The upshot is, despite American obsession with food-wine pairing, the Japanese don't really do it. Gaunter writes:

I recall once going into a sushi shop in Tokyo at which I was a regular, or at least enough of one to tease the guy behind the counter. I inquired as to why he only had one sake on hand.
'Listen, smart-ass,' he said in not quite those words, 'I was up at four in the morning today to go to Tsukiji to buy 26 different kinds of fish. For you. Do you think I want you paying attention to the sake? Pay attention to the fish; I will handle the sake for you!'

It takes some courage for a writer of a guide to sake to de-emphasize the importance of buying the single best sake you can find. But it is the right way to enjoy sake, as it with wine. This is only one of many lessons worth learning in "Sake Confidential."

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1 comment:

  1. Even though I have dangerously little sake knowledge I'm getting this book just for the anecdotal gems like the last one you quoted.