JQ Magazine: From Enkais to International Sake Judge: My Wonderful World of Nihonshu

The author at The Joy of Sake New York, September 2014 (Courtesy of Chris Johnson)

By Chris Johnson (Oita-ken, 1992-95) for JQ magazine. An SSI-certified sake sommelier based in New York City, Chris is also known as the Sake Ninja and serves on the board of directors of The Joy of Sake.

It is day two of my tenure as an AET in Kusu-machi in Oita Prefecture. After organizing my desk, I spent the morning greeting the mayor, the head of the board of education, my section boss, my subsection boss and my co-workers at the yakuba. Day turned to evening and I already learned my tenth word of the day: enkai. Party, banquet, reception, dinner, but as most JETs will recognize…this means sake. As a new member of an office or school we are kohai to everyone, which happens to mean a lot of sake.

I had enkais with the board of education, the financial department, the surveying department, the events department, the communications department (basically, all of the departments!). I had them with the English teachers, with the seven different junior high school teachers’ groups, the volleyball team, the baseball team (as the first foreigner from the U.S. to live in town, I was a little popular)…

With all that sake sipping, did I instantly grow to love sake? Not exactly. We always had a very good locally brewed sake, but it was almost always warm and I never quite sipped it to really understand it; it was more like a placeholder between a beer kanpai and the slow transition to whiskey and karaoke.

Three years later at my farewell party I was presented with an 1800 ml bottle of Yatsushika Junmai Daiginjo sake from a famous producer in Oita. Exactly. “What is a Junmai Daiginjo?,” I thought, “and how can I fit this in my already overstuffed luggage? It’s just sake.” All these thoughts happened while on stage receiving this wonderful yet misunderstood gift. I decided then and there to share it with everyone: less luggage, less sake and everybody happy. Win-win. Kanpai and…what?!? Why have I not had this amazing beverage before? I need this in my life.

That one sip started my journey. I returned to New York City and immediately put my new international relations and Japanese skills to work as a prep cook at a midtown restaurant. Here I began my sake training. Over the next four years, I studied. I worked at several local restaurants and learned about Junmai, Ginjo, Daiginjo and Nigori. Then Genshu, Yamahai and Kimoto. I sampled lots of sake and helped design sake lists. I met brewers visiting the U.S. I lived at Decibel.

In 1999, I was asked to participate in the first World Sake Sommelier Competition. To be honest, I was the token white guy. But I used everything I learned and finished in third place. (Maybe I have a palate for this sake thing.)

In 2000, I was asked to be a part of a truly exciting event, The U.S. National Sake Appraisal and The Joy of Sake in Hawaii. I joined the top sake experts in Japan as well as John Gauntner (Kanagawa-ken, 1988-89) and Philip Harper (Osaka-shi, 1988-90), Two JET alums who are huge in the sake world. Since I had studied their books, this was a brilliant learning experience. I listened, asked questions and grew as a sake judge. I got invited back to judge again. I studied more and fell deeper in love with sake. Each year more and more sakes were submitted to be judged, and each year we selected the gold and the silver medal sakes. I judged with the U.S. National Sake Appraisal for 17 years and never stopped learning.

The U.S. National Sake Appraisal is run by the Kokusai Sake Kai, a group of sake fanatics in Hawaii whose mission is to share this great beverage with more people. They run a second international event that coincides with the judging: The Joy of Sake.

Just as it sounds, this event exists to celebrate the happiness that sake brings us, the camaraderie that surrounds sharing it with friends, the respect for the craft of sake producers and the enjoyment of a truly remarkable beverage. The Joy of Sake highlights all of the year’s participating sakes and presents the gold and silver winners for the public to enjoy. I joined the team to help bring The Joy of Sake to New York.

The author at The Joy of Sake London, September 2018 (Courtesy of Chris Johnson)

On June 21, we celebrate the 15th year of The Joy of Sake NYC. Every year we gather the top restaurants to prepare sake-centric foods to enjoy while sipping sake. I am so happy to be a part of this annual public event, and I am even more proud to say that the JET Programme started my journey to judging and The Joy of Sake.

I would like to share this experience with my JETAA family. Please visit www.joyofsake.com to learn more. We have created a special $15 discount code for you below. Pick up a sake cup, and kanpai!

The Joy of Sake will be held Friday, June 21 from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City. For more information and tickets (enter promotional code JOYJET before checkout), click here

For more JQ articles, click here.