John Gauntner is one of the world’s first few leading non-Japanese sake professionals, and is celebrated as the Sake Evangelist. He has published books and has continued to teach new sake professionals globally. It is not an exaggeration to assume that without him, you might not have encountered sake today in the U.S.
Among his countless accomplishments and contributions to the sake world, one of the more recent ones is founding Sake Industry News. You can find more information on Sake Industry News at the end of this article.
Mimi: You have contributed to the sake industry in so many different ways. Which accomplishment are you most proud of?
John: What I am most proud of in terms of professionality is doing a lot of grassroots work. In other words, lecturing at lots of seminars, writing articles and books and so on. Doing enough basic grassroots work to get many people interested in sake has been my goal from the beginning—I believe it is a goal for everyone in this industry, too.
And of all the people I managed to get interested in sake through writing and speaking I’ve done, some teach, some promote, some import, some distribute and some just drink. Those people are important in the cycle of the sake chain. So what I am proud of the most is that doing a bunch of grassroots work in the beginning, not necessarily that I knew where I was going with this in the beginning, but all those people who got interested in it, are now very valuable parts of the sake equation. Creating enough of a grassroots, bunch of information that everybody could work with and use and grow into supporting the industry in everybody’s own way.
Mimi: That is absolutely a great accomplishment! What were some challenges faced as a non-Japanese sake professional?
John: Well, language is certainly one of them. At least 25 years ago when I just started this career, language was an issue. I worked hard and it is not an issue anymore. Though it is not a problem now, at the beginning, understanding sake-related special terms was a big challenge.
But with effort and enthusiasm towards the topic (of sake), I overcome any intellectual challenge you might have had. But sometimes people would ask me if it was hard, breaking into such an old, traditional world. Truth is, I didn’t really break into anything. Even from the beginning, I wasn’t like I came to the sake world and said “Guys, I’m here, everything’s gonna be okay now!” It wasn’t like that at all.
John: I was just conveying how wonderful sake is—the world of sake, the sake brewing technology, history, culture… how interesting all that was. All I was doing was just writing and speaking about that, trying to get people interested in it. So I really never asked for any support from the industry. I just very passionately and sincerely asked many questions out of interest when I visited breweries. When I just started it, I never ever thought that this would be my career and I’d be deeply involved as I am today. I was just trying to share how fascinating sake is.
To answer your question, I didn’t really have any challenges because I wasn’t really trying to get inside the industry. I was kind of staying outside telling everybody how great sake is. And I think when the industry watched what I was doing, they found I could help them convey the message in English, so I got a lot of support from the industry eventually.
Mimi: We truly appreciate your hard work and dedication towards the industry. Do you have the same motivation today as when you just started taking your actions?
John: There’s so many things in the sake world that never ever end. There’s so many things that I love doing. And that changes as time goes on. So my motivation and interest never dropped, not even a little bit. For example, Sake Industry News (newsletter subscription service filled with sake information, founded by John) is something I wouldn’t even try 20 years ago. But now, I think people are consuming and distributing sake to the point where it’s a valid publication.
John: Let’s say two wine salesmen walked into a cafe. They’d talked about the producer of this wine or that wine intimately because they know about it. On the other hand, two sake salesmen would talk about junmai or new products that are coming to the US. However, they are not extremely familiar with the industry yet. But the more familiar they get, the more interested they get, they are going to want to sell it more. That’s why I started and believe in this publication, Sake Industry News. That came a long way!
Same goes for the sake course for professionals—I thought who would want it? But the need came along eventually as the industry grew. So I don’t know what’s coming next, but my point is that my passion, interest and motivation haven’t waned at all! Not even close!
Mimi: What do you think is needed for the current sake industry to thrive?
John: That’s a challenging question. To me, the first thing is patience. Things are going in a good direction for most brewers, little by little. There is a preference-shift towards premium sake and that is basically a good thing. Although it is not massive, the profitability is actually on an increase, according to Mr. Okamoto, a vice president of Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association (JSS).
But of course, not everyone would agree with that. For example, those breweries mainly brew futsushu for a decade. But surely, in general, things are going in a better direction. We are definitely not in the woods, things are turning around for this industry. But all these data are before COVID. Now that the pandemic is here, all the bets are off and everyone is in this waiting game. That’s also why patience would be an important thing on the part of breweries.
Mimi: What does sake mean to you?
John: First of all, it’s my livelihood. It has been that for me for the last 25+ years. And it’s also an amazing mystery to me. I mean, how does this ordinary guy in Ohio get into it this deeply. It’s like “Hah (What)?!” (laughs). And it wasn’t a planned career path by any distorted imagination. So sake has got a huge dollop of magic involved in it. So many things that I experienced in my life are the result of my involvement in sake. It’s not just work, it’s not just a livelihood. It’s so much! And it’s not just me—many of you may also be able to testify to it. I don’t think anybody regrets being deeply involved in sake.
Like “Sakaya Banryu” (酒屋万流), everything about it is unique and positive. You never get bored with it. It’s a magical presence in my life for sure.
Sake Industry News
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