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Sake World Newsletter
Issue #210
January, 2019

Happy New Year!

Wishing you all the best in 2019!

Greetings to all readers, 

Happy New Year to everyone! 


May 2019, the Year of the Boar in the 12-year Asian zodiac, bring peace, health, happiness and prosperity to you all. The first of those four is likely enough, but let us aim high for the coming twelve months.


As we do almost every year, my family and I spent New Year’s Eve waiting for midnight to come, after which we went to a local Buddhist temple (in our case, Hokokuji). I live in Kamakura, once a Buddhist stronghold in Japan, and there are at least four temples within a ten minute walk of my house. Add another ten minutes to my walking radius and add perhaps another ten temples. I can see one from the window of my office room, and hear the bells each day. And bells are why we made our way there, in the first dark minutes of the very young year.


There is a custom known as “Joya no Kane,” which refers to ringing of the bells at a temple, traditionally 108 times, one for each of mankind’s worldly desires that cause us suffering. Things vary from place to place, but many temples will allow us layfolk to stand in line and ring it one time to rid us of our worldly passions (not quite sure why) and purify us for the upcoming hear. My family lined up in the cold for our turn at one meditative moment into which much significance, prayer, and positive energy are channeled.


A brief prayer. A swing of the log-like implement into the large, tubular bell. We absorb the reverberations of the deep, vibrant sound, then bow gently, and turn toward home, with heightened expectations for the coming year. That, in a nutshell, is Joya no Kane.


I recall a musician friend of mine who tried to explain the concept of the 108 passions, known as Bonno. She embodied them unabashedly and enjoyably. All 108, I think; some of them twice. They are, she explained, the physical and emotional temptations that keep us from heaven, and cause us suffering on earth. “But,” she added with an emphatic smile, “without Bonno, there would be no music!” Nothing has ever rang more true, no pun intended.


Enjoy your Bonno in moderation, and all the best in 2019.

Warm regards,



Sake Today Issue #19

The new issue of Sake Today shipped in December so you should be enjoying that with your New Year's sake. 


This issue's featured prefecture is Miyagi, with a take on its sake character and history care of Haruo Matsuzaki, and the usual travel article to supplement it. We have an additional companion piece about one of its best breweries: Urakasumi. We also showcase the fascinating history of Kyoto's Fushimi district in a lengthy, in-depth article from our local Kyoto sake expert Ayuko Yamaguchi. Beyond these highlights are two technical articles from our managing editor, John Gauntner, a short story from famous expatriate writer Alan Booth, and several other shorter columns. Enjoy!

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Sake Confidential goes into depth on many topics not usually touched upon. read reviews here a New York Times brief mention here, and order from your favorite bookseller here as well.

A Radical Notion for 2019 

Drink more what?

To open the last year of the second decade of the still-new millennium, I want to offer a somewhat bold suggestion. It may go against much you have learned about sake, but here it is: from here on out, drink more futsu-shu and honjozo. Not exclusively, mind you; just more.

I’m not issuing a challenge; it’s not like that. It is nothing more than an idea, a suggestion for this year, for those that have the willingness, and the means – as dictated by availability. Starting in 2019, drink more honjozo and futsu-shu.

As a quick, new-year’s review, amongst the handful of ways to “divide all sake into two groups,” one is tokutei meishoshu, or “special designation sake,” and the rest is, well, everything else, i.e. sake that does not qualify for a special designation. And since it does not qualify for one of eight special terms, it’s kind of just regular sake.

That “regular sake” is called futsu-shu, which means – not surprisingly – regular sake, and comprises between 60 and 65 percent of the market. As the sake market continues its rapid shift toward more premium products, futsu-shu consumption is dropping fast. Tokutei Meishoshu, or “special designation” sake, is “special” by virtue of how much the rice was milled before brewing, and further divided up by whether or not distilled alcohol was used. You can learn a bit more about the grades here, and with an at-a-glance version here.

Very often Tokutei Meishoshu is called premium sake. This is fine, and technically speaking it is basically true. This line has been drawn by the industry, and we need to make sake easily understandable and approachable the world. But such nomenclature automatically implies that anything not in the Tokutei Meishoshu club is non-premium, which implies it is not so good – and that is simply a misperception. Or at least, it’s just not that simple.

To cut to the chase, let’s just state it: there is plenty of good, very enjoyable futsu-shu out there. Lots. Sure, there are some dodgy ones in the market as well. But many kura brew simple, straightforward, unassuming, not ostentatious futsu-shu that is easy to drink and very reasonably priced.

Also, as we go up the arbitrarily ascending scale of Special Designation sake, the first one we come to is honjozo. Like futsu-shu, distilled alcohol has been added, but the allowed limits are much lower. However, honjozo also has a minimum milling rate that must be observed (70 percent), usually rendering it more refined and delicate. And like futsu-shu, there is a lot of really good honjozo out there. Tons of it. Lakes of it.

Honjozo is currently only about nine percent of the market now, but that market share is lamentably contracting very quickly, even more so than futsu-shu. Why is this? What is behind this rapid decline?

In my opinion, honjozo – which is, by the way, a full-fledged Tokutei Meishoshu – just has a bad rep. People misunderstand how enjoyable it can be, and miss its outstanding price performance. Consumers like things simple, and therefore tend to polarize things. So if someone wants to drink cheap sake, honjozo is passed over for futsu-shu. If someone wants to drink premium, just a few more coins will get them into the ginjo realm. So honjozo tends to get overlooked.

Regardless, what is important to bear in mind is that there are plenty of very good sake in each of these classifications, even though they are not the glitterati of the sake industry.
Often, we all tend to go right for the ginjo – and that includes this guy. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. It is certainly closer to a safe bet, and it is the fastest way to get someone interested in sake – if not instantly hooked. But the truth, especially with sake, is never that simple. There is really just so much great futsu-shu and honjozo out there that is well worth exploring. And that is what I want to encourage in 2019.

But really, why bother? Ginjo is a safe bet, more easily available overseas, and the word is easier to remember, even. Why put out actual effort to drink less expensive, less ostentatious sake? Here are five reasons.

One, it will help you expand your sake horizons. The more variety you include in the repertoire of sake that you drink, the more you will learn about sake in general. If you drink only ginjo, or only junmai styles, you’ll not learn nearly as much as if you include a good dollop of honjozo and futsu-shu into the mix.

Two, by trying a wide range of styles, when you find the types and grades of sake you enjoy the most, you’ll enjoy them even more after having made the rounds and come back to them. Worded less romantically, your ginjo will taste better if you drink futsuu-shu and honjozo from time to time.

Three, there are tons of great honjozo and futsu-shu out there. Oodles and oodles of ‘em. Certainly they are not as ostentatious as much ginjo-shu - they’re not supposed to be. But they can be extremely enjoyable, quite tasty, and very well suited to simple, unfettered drinking sessions. I cannot emphasize this point enough!

And four, if you want to learn about a particularly brewery and what their sake-brewing philosophy is all about, drink their futsu-shu. Sure, ginjo is good. But ginjo flavor profiles tend to converge; futsu-shu maintains much more of the character of the individual brewery. So by tasting a brewery’s futsu-shu, you’ll learn much more about their approach to sake brewing.

There is that fifth reason too, albeit a less appealing one: you’ll help the industry. The overall industry is in decline, and that decline is led by futsu-shu and honjozo: they drop every year. Drinking more of them will help bolster the industry and help make it easier for us to enjoy our Tokubei Meishoshu from amongst the currently active 1200 or so brewers. The more of them we lose, the less we have to choose from. So we can help keep things interesting by enjoying more futsu-shu and honjozo from time to time.

So next time, at least for 2019, resist the urge to go straight for the ginjo. Tokutei Meishoshu is great; junmai and the four ginjo types are of course wonderful sake, and they deserve to be in the spotlight as they are. But bear in mind that sake that do not qualify for those grades are no less wonderful sake, and drinking a bit more of them – in particular futsu-shu and honjozo – can be enjoyable and worthwhile in so many ways.

Hatsu-shibori: The First Pressing of the Year


Here we are in the depths of winter. Although the days have begun to grow minutely if incrementally longer again, they continue to grow colder as all around us remains in hibernation. But this is just the time when the sake-brewing season is traditionally at its peak.


With actual brewing of initial batches having begun in November, most (if not all) breweries have pressed their first several batches of the season. Naturally this does not apply to large brewers that brew year-round, and there are also many that start earlier or even later than the average. But traditionally and statistically, the first few weeks of last month see the pressing of the first tank of the year at many breweries.


And along with this first pressing comes a handful of terms - with greatly overlapping meanings - to describe the resulting sake.


After the tank of rice, water, koji and yeast has run the course of fermentation, the clear sake must be separated from the white slurry of rice solids that remain. This step is usually done by a machine that forces the slurry though fine mesh panels, catching the solids and letting the amber ambrosia pass through. There are of course other, more labor intensive, quality-imparting methods then these machines.


Regardless of the method, this pressing step is known as “ shibori.” and the first pressing of the brewing season is “ hatsu-shibori.” We can often find sake labeled “ shibori-tate,” meaning “just pressed” on shelves of sake retail shops.


Another term greeting us from sake labels early in the new year is “ shinshu,” or “new

sake,” which is sake that is, well, new. Most sake is aged after pressing for from about six months to about 18 months, although there is great variation in this as well from brewery to brewery. Aging sake like this allows the just-pressed new-sake brashness to mellow and round out, not unlike what happens with wine. Shinshu is sake released without this maturation, and as such has a fresh and brash youthfulness to the flavor.


So, one might ask, what is the difference between the two terms used above, shibori-tate and shinshu? The main inference is that a shibori-tate is just out of the presses, with all of the attendant brashness that implies, whereas a shinshu may have been pasteurized, filtered, and tweaked, but simply has not been aged for long, if at all. And yes, there is a whole lot of overlap there.


Much sake released now is also nama-zake, which is sake that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization in sake means temporarily heating it gently to deactivate enzymes that could alter the flavor. These active enzymes could send the sake awry and out of balance if it is not kept cold. Sake that has not been pasteurized (i.e. nama-zake) has a zingy, fresh, appealing lilt to the fragrance and flavor, although this aspect can overpower the true nature of the sake if it is not kept in check during production.


Much shibori-tate is nama-zake as well, as is much shinshu.


Not enough terminology for ya? Thirsty for more? Here are a few more that, while by no means limited to this time of the year, may be a bit more common to this season.


  Genshu is sake that has not been cut with water after brewing. Sake ferments naturally to about 20 percent alcohol, which is a bit high to allow the fine nuances to come through. It is therefore usually cut with water to bring it down to about 16 percent alcohol. Genshu has not had water added, and therefore is a bit stronger. This often complements the rough-and-tumble brashness of shibori-tate sake.

Muroka” unfiltered, in the sense that it has not been charcoal filtered. Most sake, after pressing, is at some point in time filtered using powdered active charcoal to fine-tune the flavor and remove unwanted aspects. (This filtering process is curious to watch, as they actually dump a bunch of fine, black powder into this lovely sake, then filter it out.) Muroka sake has a wider range of flavor components, and again refraining from filtering augments the appeal of freshly-pressed sake. It all works together.


Note that often several of these terms can be found one label. For example, you can have a shiboritate nama muroka genshu, and it would not be at all uncommon or strange, even if it is a mouthful (in more than one sense of the word).


But in the end, the terminology is ancillary in importance, and all that really matters is enjoying freshly-made sake when it is best: now.


                                                            ~    ~    ~

Amidst all these terms is one more, self-explanatory (if you understand Japanese, that is) nyet very rarely seen – Gantan Shibori. Gantan is the word for New Year's Day. So a sake marketed as Gantan Shibori will have been pressed on January 1, and shipped out immediately so as to be enjoyed on that day or very soon thereafter.


While of course this tells us nothing about the grade of the sake, it will surely be nama, muroka, and most likely genshu. And it will of course be shibori-tate and shinshu too! So you kind of the whole kit-n-caboodle in a bottle of Gantan Shibori.

                  Sake Professional Course in Chicago

                                  April 23 ~ 25, 2019 

From Tuesday, April 23 to Thursday, April 25, 2019,  I will hold the 30th North American running of the Sake Professional Course at the restaurant Sunda, in Chicago, Illinois. The content of this intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, with the exception of visiting sake breweries.
The course is recognized by the Sake Education Council, and those that complete it will be qualified to take the exam for Certified Sake Specialist, which will be offered on the evening of the last day of the course.

 You can learn more about the course here, see the daily syllabus here,and download a pdf here. If you are interested in being in the mailing list for direct course announcements, please send me an email to that purport. 

Testimonials from past graduates can be perused here as well.  




 All the Sake World Newsletters ever written: 

Over 20 years of writing sake newsletters, much of the online world has changed. As such, unavoidably, the archives are scattered over several locations. Should you want to scour older newsletters for topics that of interest, you can do that across the three URLs below, found in one of the several manifestations of my website. 

Number 1 to 112 are here: 

Number 113 to 185 can be read here 

Number 186 to the most recent newsletters can be read here, not in their original format but rather as individual blog posts, in the archives of the Sake World blog:

About This Newsletter
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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