Sake World Email Newsletter #178
August, 2015

Dozo, dozo!

In This Issue

George Carlin and Tokubetsu
Omachi Rice, Omach Summit
NYC Sake Pro Course
Sake Education Central

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Late Summer Greetings,  

Sanma (saury) on the grill

I hope you are well. We are on the cusp of another sake-brewing season, as next month brewers all around Japan will begin to gear up for the long brewing season. There will be autumnal tastings a-plenty, although this summer they never really seemed to abate anyway. But fall may be the most delicious season for eating and drinking in Japan, typified by saury, or sanma on the grill, and of course some appropriately chosen sake. 

Things continue to be good in the sake world, at least in the premium sake world. Popularity of premium sake continues to grow in both domestic and overseas markets. Since the rising tide of sake raises all sake boats, let us do our best to help the trend continue.

Also: Sake Today Issue #6 is shipping now; be sure to look for yours or subscribe if you have not already!

The 2015 New York City Sake Professional Course will be held December 7 to 9. See below for more information and contact me if you are interested. As the venue is slick yet compact this time, attendance will be limited to only 40.

Enjoy the newsletter, preferably with a glass of autumnal hiya-oroshi, if you can get some. Look for more information on this seasonal type in a couple of weeks, in the September issue of this newsletter.


Sake Today Issue #6 - now available! 

Issue #6 of Sake Today has shipped. If you are a subscriber, thank you, and look for it soon. Did you just renew that subscription? Look for #6 soon. Not yet a subscriber? You can take care of that here, Why miss out on sake awesomeness?

Like the first four issues, Issue 6 is chock-full of sake information on many levels with something for everyone interested in sake. And take not of our packages: You can order issue #1, #2, #3, #4, #5 or even all six in a package - and/or  subscribe.

The digital version for your e-reader is ready for download too, and that includes iTunes. You can a lso view some content online as well. So check out now - and keep current on all things sake.

If you subsribed to Sake Today from the beginning, first and foremost, thank you! And if you have not done so yet, now would be a great time to renew your subscription

Sake Confidential - Now available

Sake Confidential

Sake Confidential is a beyond-the-basics guide to the sake world, and after a short introductory chapter on all things sake, it goes into depth on many topics not usually touched upon. It is a practical and concise yet complete guide to sake idiosyncrasies, misperceptions, and controversies presented in a conversational and informal tone. Easy to read and frank, it also includes sake recommendations tied into each of the topics presented.

Read a veritable cornucopia of reviews here a New York Times brief mention here, and order from your favorite bookseller here as well. 

George Carlin and Tokubetsu Junmai / Honjozo
Would that there be a tokubetsu junmai, Fodder?...

George Carlin
The late, great comedian George Carlin, in a skit called “I used to be Irish Catholic,” speaks of a time when he and his friends would ask a priest named Father Russel weird questions during what they called “heavy mystery time.” One such deftly crafted conundrum concerned “Easter duty,” or receiving communion during the Easter season. George himself tells it with a thick New Jersey accent, rendering it much funnier than mere prose. Nevertheless:

“Hey, hey, hey Fodder! Hey, uh, suppose that you didn’t make your Easter duty and it’s Pentecost Sunday, the last day, and you’re on a ship at sea. And the chaplain goes into a coma! But you wanted to receive. And then it’s Monday, too late… But then you cross the International Date Line! Would that there then be a sin, Fodder?”

I remember this story each time I talk about the grades of sake called tokubetsu junmai and tokubetsu honjozo.

In short, tokubetsu means special, so tokubetsu junmai is special junmai, i.e. a bit better than regular junmai (but not quite as good as junmai ginjo), and tokubetsu honjozo is special honjozo, i.e. a bit better than regular honjozo (but not quite as good as ginjo). And, importantly, there are legally defined rules that determine what makes them special.

So, a junmaishu or honjozo can be tokubetsu, i.e. special, if it conforms to any one (or more) of three rules. One, it is made with 100% proper sake rice. Two, the rice used has been milled to ginjo levels, i.e. to 60% of its original size or better. And three, “something else special, approved as such, and listed on the label.”

The qualifying point will almost always be one of the first two above. Like, 99.9999 percent of the time, it will be. But the possibility exists that there is some bizzare-o reason a sake is qualified as tokubetsu. However, for all intents and purposes, we can forget about that third rule.

The Grades of Sake
But when lecturing about these wonderful and under-appreciated two grades, there is invariably someone who wants to get to the very bottom of all this, and understand it with crystal clear clarity. Sake doesn’t roll that way, but nevertheless, they want to try to nail it down. So (s)he will come up with all kinds of weird concoctions and ideas, and will ask, “Would that then be enough to call it a tokubetsu?”

It might. It might not. It would be up to the folks in the National Tax Administration. But it is all but moot since almost without exception what qualifies a sake for tokubetsu will either be ginjo milling, the use of sake rice, or (commonly) both.

In fact, the only exception I recall ever having seen was a junmai-shu mixed with a slurry of daiginjo nigori-like dregs. Approval was received, the label explained it, and the sake sold as a tokubetsu junmai. But, really: whatevuh. It was an anomaly.

It needn’t be that difficult nor complex. Just bear in mind that, for all intents and purposes, tokubetsu junnmai and tokubetsu honjozo are legally defined grades that are special by virtue of having been made with 100% proper sake rice or by being made with rice (not necessarily proper sake rice) milled to ginjo levels, i.e. down to 60% of the original size or more. And often, it conforms to both of these rules.

Why am I putting so much energy into this explanation? Because tokubetsu junmai and tokubetsu honjozo are some of my favorite sake. They are clearly a cut above the simple grades below them, but they do not conform (get sucked into?) the ginjo-flavor-and-aroma borg above them. Plenty of almost-rustic character, lots of interesting things happening in their flavor profiles, but still quite refined. While there are comparatively fewer products in these two grades, they are very much worth exploring and spending time with; eminently enjoyable.

If these are that good, why then don’t the brewers that make them bump them up just a notch and sell them as ginjo and junmai ginjo? Surely most of them would qualify, and if not, could be tweaked to do so!

Indeed, this is true. There are a handful of possible reasons, and one is that often breweries have products in the ginjo and junmai ginjo realms that are standard and sell well. To introduce another sake in the same category could confuse consumers. Or perhaps by backing the specs off just a bit, a product like a tokubetsu jumai or tokubetsu honjozo can sell for a bit less, at a different price point. And surely, there are other well-considered reasons as well.

But in the end, just remember that tokubetsu junmai and tokubetsu honjozo are knocking on the door of junmai ginjo and ginjo, and that in all practicality their legally-defined specialness derives from either sake rice or ginjo milling.

But yes, once in a blue moon, there may be another qualifying reason. And so we can continue to ask, from time to time, after stating a curious if appealing set of circumstances, “Would that then be enough to call it a tokubetsu?”

Omachi Rice and the Omachi Summit


Sake, like much about Japan, is refreshingly simple at first. One need know so little to enjoy it almost immediately. But just below the surface, sake and everything about it become fascinatingly intricate and multifarious, yet also fraught with exceptions and vagueness. And so it is too with rice.

Sake is brewed from rice. Surely we all know that much. There are about 280 varieties of Japonica rice grown in Japan, and most premium sake is brewed from special sake rice (called shuzo-kouteki-mai) of which there are about 100 varieties. Each has its own characteristics; size, starch and protein content, solubility, and preferred climate can be different for each. 

And yes, while different rice varieties lead to different flavors in the final sake, it is not as tight a connection as it might be for grapes-to-wine.
The biggest reason for that is that each master brewer can coax the rice to behave in a prescribed way, leading to totally different sake styles from the same rice. Nevertheless, if one tastes enough, it is indeed very possible to see threads of familiarity and style that run through sake made with the same rice.

The most popular and widely grown sake rice is called Yamada Nishiki. About fourth on the list is one called Omachi. Ah… Omachi.

Late last month I attended what is called the “Omachi Summit.” The fact that this event exists at all divulges much about the sake-and-rice industrial complex of Japan.

To short-circuit a potentially long-winded explanation, with but a couple of exceptions, brewers do not grow their own rice. It is instead grown by individual rice farmers (i.e. not business entities) and is distributed primarily but not exclusively through a network of agricultural co-ops for which we will use the general term “Zennoh.”

And Zennoh is a proper, structured organization with business objectives and a corresponding marketing arm. And the Okayama Prefecture branch of Zennoh is who is behind the Omachi Summit, with this year being the seventh running.  

Omachi Summit Flyer

The Omachi Summit is a contest / tasting / party to assess and celebrate all the sake made using Omachi rice grown in Okayama. Note, the sake can be made elsewhere, but the rice has to be grown in Okayama to be a part of this gala affair. Omachi rice can be and often is grown outside of Okayama. But Okayama is its birthplace, and without a doubt the best source for premium Omachi rice.

A bit more about this vaunted rice variety: Omachi was originally discovered in 1866, in a village of the same name in the western part of Okayama Prefecture, where almost all Omachi is grown. It is, for what it is worth, the oldest pure (i.e. not a product of cross-breeding) rice variety in Japan, and was one of the three most widely grown varieties in Japan during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Back then it was also popular as a table rice.

But its suitability to brewing great sake soon became obviously apparent, and more and more brewers in western Japan began to use it. In fact, once upon a time, it was almost common sense that Omachi should be used when brewing top grade sake for contests and such. This was before the days of Yamada Nishiki, and other crossbreeds, of course.

However, it's very long stalks made it hard to grow and harvest by machine, and so farmers stopped growing it. It wasn't until the mid '80s that anyone really began to grow it again - a side effect of what was known as the ginjo-boom. It has become so popular that now it is the fourth most widely grown sake rice in Japan.

As mentioned, Omachi itself is a pure rice strain, unlike most sake rice varieties. But it is found in the “family trees” of 60 percent of all sake rice grown today. How’s that for a stud of a rice!

At the event, there were about 150 sake from about 100 kura spread across 31 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Obviously there are more using Omachi, albeit grown outside of Okayama. They were tasted and scored by a panel of judges, after which we were free to taste and assess ourselves.

Omachi in Okayama

So, what does same made from Omachi taste like? In short, it is much more earthy and decidedly herbal than fruity and flowery. Aromas are in general less prominent than they might be with sake made with, say, Yamada Nishiki. The individual flavor components compete against each other in a healthy way, as opposed to blending harmoniously, as they might with Yamada Nishiki. I like the term “herbal, broad and striated” when describing the flavor profile of sake made using Omachi. While hardly an appetizing term, it does conjure the nature of sake made with Omachi, at least in my mind.

In his short speech, the tasting panel chairman explained how the judges were encouraged to look beyond aromas and avoid selecting sake based on alluring bouquets, instead assessing those flavor-driven facets that make Omachi-brewed sake special. Still, it seemed that most of the awarded sake on the tables had quite prominent aromatics. Yet there was also plenty of sake with all kinds of interesting things happening: spice, tartness, astringency, breadth and complexity. While some of these were in need of a bit of fine tuning, you could see where the brewers were trying to go. And you felt like encouraging them in that effort.

The event highlighted and reinforced many things about Omachi. It really is an awesome rice, and sake made using it can be character laden, extremely interesting and tasty to boot. And it is growing in popularity as well. More and more younger brewers are using it, so much so that there was not enough to go around this year. Surely Zennoh Okayama will do their best to alleviate that next year!

In the end, it all supported the truth that Omachi is a very interesting rice, and one well worth studying. 

But then again, aren't they all? 

Announcements and Events

Sake Professional Course in New York City, December 7 to 9

Fermenting moromi (mash) under the window

The next Sake Professional Course is scheduled for New York City, December 7 to 9 e at the restaurant-industry education space Journee in the Flatiron district of New York. The venue is compact and ideal for the course, but is a bit smaller than usual. As such, participation is limited to 40 people this time. It promises to be a particularly enjoyable running of the course. 

More information is available here, and testimonials from graduates can be perused here as well. The three-day course wraps up with Sake Education Council supported testing for the Certified Sake Professional (CSP) certification. If you are interested in making a reservation, or if you have any questions not answered via the link above, by all means please feel free to contact me. 


Sake Education Council Website

Please take a moment to check out the website for the Sake Education Council, the organization behind the Certified Sake Professional and Advanced Sake Professional certifications. We plan to grow steadily, strongly and continually, and we will need the support of all those that love sake to do so. Follow us through the "usual suspects" of social media.

Don't forget the archives!

Older editions of this newsletter are archived here.

Sake Education Central

Sake's Hidden Stories and The Sake Notebook are now available for the Kindle, Nook and iBooks!

The Sake Notebook is now available for the Kindle as well as the Nook. And now, it is available for iBooks on iTunes as well!

Sake's Hidden Stories too is now availabe on the Kindle as well as the Nook. And now, it is available for iBooks on iTunes as well!

Both are less expensive than their original pdf version too. Now is your chance to learn more about sake from your phone or tablet! Check 'em out!

Sake Dictionary App for the iPhone, iPod and iPad
The Sake Dictionary App

"For 99 cents, this app ROCKS!!"
     -a satisfied customer

There you are, perusing a menu, or standing in front of a shelf of great sake, or perhaps reading a sake newsletter… and up pops one of those hairy, pesky sake terms in Japanese. You know you have heard it many times, but dammit, you just cannot remember what it means now…

No problem! Just whip out your iPhone or iPod and fire up your trusty old version of The Sake Dictionary. In a matter of seconds, you’ll be amongst the cognoscenti once again. But… if only you could pronounce it properly. Now that would really rock!

Done! Just tap on the term and you will hear a clear example of how to pronounce the term in Japanese. Repeat it a couple of times and the term is yours for eternity, to toss about and impress your mates.

What’s more, it’s less! Less than what it cost before, much less. Like less than one-seventh less. For a limited time only, the audio-enhanced version of The Sake Dictionary iPhone app is available for a mere $0.99.

The Sake Dictionary is a concise little package of all the terms you might ever come across when dealing with sake. Almost 200 of them - including sake grades, rice variety names, seasonal sake terms, special varieties, rare types, post-brewing processing words and the myriad terms used in sake production - many of which are not even familiar to the average Japanese person on the street - are listed up here with concise, useful and clear definitions and the written Japanese version as well. And now, with the new audio component, you can listen and learn just how to pronounce those terms properly.

Start to toss around Japanese sake terms like you were raised knowing them! Gain a level of familiarity hitherto unimaginable! Avoid frustrating paralysis when faced with a sake-related purchase!

Get your copy of The Sake Dictionary now and never be confused by sake terms - or how to pronounce them - again.

Get it here:

(Note if you have already purchased it, this upgrade to the audio version is free. Just go to iTunes and get it!) 

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I hope you have found the above information helpful and entertaining. For more information about all things sake, please check out Until next month, warm regards, and enjoy your sake.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner, at this 
John Gauntner
email address.

All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.


John Gauntner
Sake World, Inc.

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