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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sake Confidential - A Book Review

This is actually a book review for a book I enjoyed very much.

I'm the type of guy/gaijin/foreigner (regardless of country) who likes to immerse himself in information.

I have done and continue to do the same with regards to Japan, somehow without learning much of its language I have managed to pick up quite a bit of its history, social customs and well… lots of other stuff.

I have managed to sip at the table of learning, drowning whatever real or imagined sorrows I had at my local bar in Japan, often toasting with Japanese locals… pretty much just enjoying life.

(Sorry Vince)

One of the easiest ways to enjoy one's self in Japan - and by that I mean immersing oneself in Japanese culture - is to share a beverage with a like-minded Nihonjin, regards of their adult age or sex. 

I'm not talking about o-cha (green tea), though that is a huge part of Japanese culture, but rather I am talking about alcohol.

While the Japanese like to think of themselves as being internationally cultured when they have some fine whiskey straight up, or perhaps consider themselves fun-loving when they imbibe huge quantities of beer, when they truly want to show off or impress, especially to an honored guest - let's say you and I - that is when they break out the sake - fermented rice wine, if I may be so common.

Prior to leaving Toronto for one (soon to be three years) in Japan on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, my father warned me about the power of sake (pronounced 'sah-kay'), noting that it went down like water but had the kick of a tsunami.

I first met sake at my first coming-out party in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken - the place I called home - during a festival in early August… when it was hot and very humid - still in the mid 30C-range by 10PM.

A shunga "pornographic" ukiyo-e sake set of mine.

I was parched. When a local sake salesman saw we walking by towed by my Board of Education bosses, he proudly offered up his wares to the city's new assistant English teacher.

I sipped the glass of sake at first. Mmmmm. Warm, flavorful, fruity-even, and very aromatic - alcohol was what I smelled… but I couldn't determine anything more than that.

It tasted like nothing I had ever tasted before…

Sake… this isn't booze… to me sake was my first real exposure to Japanese culture.

Encouraged by all the Japanese men around me watching me pussyfoot around this miniature Japanese atomic bomb - they began chanting "Iki! Iki!" while miming the chug-chug hand gesture - so I downed it in one gulp. Yeah… I can open up the throat… a skill on a heterosexual man that only lends itself to drinking.

The Japanese men were impressed, as I tapped the upturned glass a few times to ensure I had every single drop of the clear liquid ambrosia.

Junmai Ginjo - some of the good stuff I enjoy drinking!

Cheers - and Kanpai abounded! As did another 15 glasses. My dad was wrong. It was sweet and did not pack the kick of a mule. Or maybe I had truly inherited my alcoholic uncle's genes and could out drink a sailor. Or maybe - just maybe - it was hot, and I was thirsty. Whatever. I only got a small buzz… my comrades who had initially joined me were staggering around drunk off their gourd.

Japanese culture. Nothing brings people together better than drinking (unless you are drinking while watching sports with rival fans).

That was my first experience with sake.

I suppose it could be used for sauces, but this is a lacquered sake sipping set of cups. Mine.

Another memorable time was when I won a sake drinking contest (tied really), where the Japanese JET leader and I powered down 47 glasses of sake apiece - two others passed out some 30+ glasses earlier.

Since then, I have actually been able to taste sake - much like that first sip I had on my lips… you never forget your first taste on your lips…

I could now sense the thickness or thinness… different smells, colors and even tastes in my sake… but I'm not so cultured that I could actually tell you what all those flavors or smells were.

In fact… all I knew about sake was that it was fermented rice… and I didn't even know what that meant.

My Mashiko pottery sake set. The  cups have never been used - because I tend to drink more than what each cup holds.
 I assumed it had standard Japanese fermented rice flavor. Rice tastes like rice… what's the big deal.

And then I read the most eye-opening book on Japanese culture (IE alcohol) that I have ever read: Sake Confidential, a "beyond the basics guide to Understanding, Tasting, Selection & Enjoyment' of sake.

Written by John Gauntner, and published by the fine folks over at Stone Bridge Press (who sent me a copy to review), I learned more about my favorite alcohol-based drink in three hours than in the previous 25 years of imbibing.

Sake Confidential - where have you been half my life?

Gauntner writes in a simple manner - as though he is talking just to you… I try to do the same.

I used to live two floors up from a sake shop, and when I stopped in to say hello every day, I would always marvel at the fantastic selection of sake bottles perched above and behind the shopkeeper.

I probably could have learned a lot from him about sake, but he spoke NO English, and I spoke next to NO Japanese. We always tried to communicate with each other (the fault is mine… I'm in Japan, and he was a WWII Japanese war vet)… but what always brought us closer was when he would close down the shop for the evening and drink with me.

He bade his wife to bring out Japanese nibble food, while he cracked open a bottle of three of the good sake… and for him, it wasn't the clear stuff… it was cloudy, and I didn't even know if it was expensive or not, but it tasted great!

Junmai sake - another pottery set of mine.

But now thanks to Sake Confidential, I have learned more about Japanese culture than I even knew existed.

Actually.. I knew it existed… I just thought it was information that wouldn't be privy to a non-Japanese!

What I found surprising, is that the whole industry of sake brewing doesn't appear to be very profitable! Breweries that make money have other businesses that do make money…

I also learned that there are very important distinctions between sake - two main ones, but it still allows for a thousand or more different flavors of sake. Who knew?

I also learned about how various ingredients and processes affect a sake's flavor, aroma and quality.

Rice. I really didn't know anything about rice - and now I do and want to learn more. I just thought that there was Japanese rice and that was it. Ignorant ol' me.

How the rice is milled, the yeast types, how the yeast is manipulated… temperature, storage… I didn't know sake could go bad in my cabinet! Apparently it does! I guess I should get rid of that bottle that's been open for six months or more… I just thought that alcohol would kill anything… Who knew?

Grades of sake?! Who knew?

What I did (past tense) know about sake could fit into a thimble. But no longer! Thanks to Sake Confidential - I know.

For anyone who is interested in learning all of sake's secrets; how the industry really works, as well as some history, well… let me just heartily recommend Sake Confidential (from Stone Bridge Press).

Now… Sake Confidential does use Japanese words, but author and sake connoisseur Gauntner does provide initial great explanations for each word.

There's even a glossary.

But that's where my complaint comes in - the glossary is at the back of the book, tucked between the last chapter and the Index. I never saw it until I finished the book!

I know sommmmme Japanese, but not a lot. I just wish I had found the glossary earlier.

Stone Bridge Press - I know the glossary is first listed in the Table of Contents page, but I didn't look at it. I'm unsure how many people do. Many, I suppose, so take my complaint with a grain of rice.

Me - why do I need the table of contents - I'm reading the book in order regardless of what you or the author has planned for me.

Still… for every Japanese-related book, I would humbly suggest a Glossary placed before Chapter 1. People will find it and use it. It's like the old Perry Mason books I used to read from Triangle (from the 30s and 40s)… a list of players in advance of the story. One knew it was there and could easily refer to it when confused about who which character was.

Issue Number 2 - and not a major one, I think. The author has included some sake labels within the chapters, and provides descriptions of what each of those sake's taste like.

Great, I suppose, because the Japanese brand name is given in English… but what I would have liked was perhaps arrows or something with English descriptions of what exactly the KANJI was on the label - to better help know just what we are looking for on the shelf.

It's a minor complaint(s), but hopefully my suggestions of correction are at least valid for the next printing.

Yet another sake cup I own. Geez,  do you think I like sake?
 To Michael of Stone Bridge Press - I understand why you believed this to be a great book.

Perhaps you do understand that I am the type of person who likes to know everything about a topic.

In my opinion, blogs, articles and news stories that only present part of the story are a waste of everyone's time. Give me as much information as possible. It's why you will rarely every get a short article from me.

I spend hours and hours researching an article that maybe only 100 people will read because I don't have the phrase "big boobs" in it - but whatever… I'd rather have someone - even one person read my blog for a full story - knowing I did it right.

I certainly hope many more of you loyal readers will consider purchasing the book - visit Stone Bridge Press for ordering of this and other great books on Japan:

Thanks to John Gauntner and his wonderful Sake Confidential book, I now know everything one gaijin could possibly know about the world of sake - at least on paper.

Now all I have to do is go and sample some quality sake. Thanks to Sake Confidential, I'm pretty sure I at least know what to look for.

Andrew Joseph

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