Book Review – The Sake Handbook by John Gauntner

Posted by bmountain | Posted in Sake Books | Posted on 15-08-2009

The Sake Handbook by John Gauntner

The Sake Handbook by John Gauntner

John Gauntner is to sake what Julia Child was to French cooking in America.  Widely known as “the sake guy”, John lives in Japan and has written five books on sake.  John has wracked up honors that have historically been awarded only to native Japanese such as the Award for the Promotion of Japanese Cuisine Overseas, an award assessed by the Ministry of Forestry and Fisheries in Japan, the “Kikizake Meijin” (Accomplished Sake Taster) award, presented by the Junsui Nihonshu Kyoukai (Pure Sake Association) for accuracy in sake tasting skills, and (the only non-Japanese) membership in the Ginjoshu Kenkyu Kikou (Ginjo Sake Research Group).  Frankly, he has forgotten more than most of us will ever learn about sake.

I picked up a copy of John’s “The Sake Handbook” at the Kinokuniya Bookstore across from Bryant Park in Manhattan.  Kinokuniya’s has the best selection of english language books on sake that I’ve ever seen and there were a wide variety of books at varying prices.  There were some spectacular hardcovers there but since I was traveling I didn’t really want to lug a coffee table book home with me.  I spent a little time browsing and found a little paperback that had better content than the big beautiful hardcovers, at a fraction of the price.  So $14.95 later I was walking out of the store and looking forward to my train ride home late that evening so I could dig into what I knew was going to be an excellent read.

The Sake Handbook has some fascinating insights.  I’ve often heard sake described as Japanese rice wine.  John explains that sake is neither a wine nor a beer, and is actually in a class of its own as an alcoholic beverage since the brewing process is uniquely different.  If you’ve ever had a masu of sake (small open topped wooden box in a saucer), the book recounts how masus were used to measure rice in feudal Japan as a form of currency.  A traditional bottle of sake filled 10 masus which is why sake today comes in awkwardly sized 1.8 liter bottles.

The Sake Handboook is an excellent book for anyone looking to learn more about sake.  It covers sake history, brewing processes, labeling conventions, preparation and tasting advice.  It also has a section with John’s recommendations.  I haven’t tried them all but so far every one has been a winner so I’ve come to keep his book in my briefcase so I can refer to it at my local package store.  It even has a section on sake pubs in Tokyo and I’m looking forward to frequenting as many as I can on my next trip to Japan.

My only complaint with the book is I would have liked to have dug a bit more deeply into the brewing process, but admittedly this small guide can’t cover everything and I suspect John covers that in one of his other books.  Something to look for before my upcoming vacation where we’ll be covering “the Best Sakes for New England Beaches”.

Until the next time.

The Sake Handbook
John Gauntner
Tuttle Publishing

Kinokuniya Bookstore
1073 Avenue of the Americas
New York (212) 242-9040 site down

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