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The Insider's Guide to Sake Paperback – September 30, 1998

5.0 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"A lively, clear guide to a subject just waiting to be discovered by the inscrutable West." -- New York Times

From the Publisher


Q. Could you tell us a little about your background? "I grew up in Cornwall, in the far southwest of Great Britain. Celtic blood may partly explain my passion for fine inebriants. I prepared for a career in sake brewing by studying German and English literature at university, before coming to Japan (with the initial intention of teaching English) in 1988."

Q. What motivated you to write this book? "When I first started drinking sake about a dozen years ago, my Japanese was next to nonexistent. The early period of my sake-drinking career was exhilarating, but not without frustrations. These were mainly to do with the difficulty of terminology. Beautiful as sake labels are, they are often very difficult to read. Even the simple task of ordering a drink in a restaurant is tricky when everything is written in Japan's notoriously complicated script. English information would have been a blessing, but there was very little about. So, in a sense, the book was written for the me of twelve years ago."

Q. Could you tell us a little about the contents of the book? "As well as tasting notes of over 100 specific brands of sake, the book contains an overview of sake's long history, and a description of the remarkable process by which it is made. At the rear, there are reviews and listings of retailers, restaurants, and izakaya in Japan and abroad. A thorough index and glossary are useful features, as is the compact list of vital terms and measures, tucked into the endpapers."

Q. What do you see as the centerpiece of the book? Why is the book important? "The meat of the book is the Sake Sampler, a survey of more than 100 sake brands, with tasting notes, and information on the policy and history of individual breweries. Photographs of each label enable nonreaders of Japanese to find the sakes easily, and the book is compactly formatted, so it can be easily carried on drinking or shopping exhibitions. How important is it? As a lover of sake (rather than as the author) I'd say, as a practical guide, it is second to none.

Q. What did you yourself learn from writing the book? "I was reminded constantly of the huge range of styles of sake."

Q. What would you like readers to take away with them after reading this> book? "If readers come away infected with the delight in sake that has helped me keep my nose to the grindstone in a traditional brewery for the last decade, I would be delighted."

Q. What people or books were influential in the writing of your book? "My uncomplaining wife did enormous amounts of unpaid work. The books of Japanese sake critic and writer, Matsuzaki Haruo, were an inspiration and a tremendous resource. If he wrote in English, I don't think I'd have the nerve to bother. The understated prose of Charles MacClean, and his apt evocations of the delights of Scotch whisky have also been a model for me."

Q. What are your plans for the future, in terms of new books or other projects? "New sake books in the pipeline, in English and Japanese. For English, watch this space!"

Q. Is there anything else the reader should know? "Everyone should be acquainted with fine sake."


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Kodansha USA (September 30, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 4770020767
  • ISBN-13: 978-4770020765
  • Product Dimensions: 3.8 x 0.7 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #678,206 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
As a lover of great sake but one who did not know much about how to go about choosing it, I found this book to be very informative and entertaining at the same time. Entertaining in that this is a true "insider's guide" since the author is the only foreigner that I have heard of who has worked in a traditional sake brewery for an extended amount of time. The insights contained in this book can be found nowhere else in the English language as far as I know.
Sake, like wine, comes in many forms and can be an aquired taste. Really good sake served cold (were talking really expensive stuff) can be one of the best tasting drinks you will ever experience. Please don't judge the merits of sake by that cheap hot stuff thats often served in inexpensive Japanese restaurants.
I recommend this book for those even with a passing interest in sake - wherever you currently reside. For foreigners currently living in Japan, the book will encourage you to taste various sake available only in Japan (as you should while you are there). For those outside Japan, the book contains a very comprehensive guide to restaurants and stores that serve/sell premium sake.
Finally, I should also mention that "The Insider's Guide to Sake" is much better than other books you will find on the subject, including "The Book of Sake". It is an easy read, and is thin enough to fit in your pocket (OK, a large pocket) so that you can take it with you to the local liquor store.
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I am glad that Philip Harper wrote "The Insider's Guide to Sake." What you have here in this little book is everything a person needs to begin their exploration into the inscrutable world of Sake.
Like many alcohols, Sake is a beverage of wildly variant qualities. Some is made to be cheap and get you drunk quick, some is made to savor and enjoy. Of course, approaching a Sake label with little Japanese ability makes it difficult to discern the difference. Even if the label is translated, the meaning is not readily clear. What makes a good Sake? What qualities should I be looking for?
This books takes that exact frame of mind, leading the novice through all stages of Sake production from rice growing to brewing methods, both traditional and modern. Sake is quality-graded by the government, and by the end of this book a drinker will be able to choose with confidence between a Junmaishu, a Hinjozu or the ultra-sake Daiginjo.
A few other benefits of this guide are a sake alphabet, with facts and useful tidbits of information spread throughout the book in alphabet format. The tasting guide offers a brief glance at a hundred or so of the available 1,000 plus Sakes. I found this to be a very useful starting place, allowing me to make an informed choice at the Sake store. (The book also shows you how to recognize a quality Sake seller. a very useful piece of information.) Depending on where you live, the sake restaurant guide is useful.
All in all, this book picked my interest in sake and transformed my casual curiosity into a full-blown investigation. Don't go into a sake shop without it!
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Several months ago I went to Shiki's, a Japanese restaurant in Seattle with a group of friends. It was a comfortable night and I thought I'd get some Sake. The Sake came out and I poured some for myself and my friends and it was vile. Absolute undrinkable swill.
My friends looked at me like I was from another planet. "This is what Sake tastes like," they said. "No, it is not." I replied. Luckily, Shiki's has a small, but well chosen, selection of specialty Sakes. I selected one of those and when they brought it over the table could hardly believe the difference.
I knew there was a difference, but I had no idea why. I just knew that when I was in Tokyo I was given something very different than the evil liquid I was first served.
I decided at that point that I would become a Sake snob. I figured that in this age of ubiquitous information it would be easy to find resources on Sake and that it would still be a rarity. Becoming a Sake snob would add to my overall mystique and propel me from the merely interesting person I was into the dauntingly magnificent fellow I am today.
Philip Harper's small book was my propellant. The book is very short ... in fact most of it is lists of Sakes, restaurants and retail outlets world wide. The book takes you through a quick history of the art of making Sake, how to taste Sake, how to read a Sake bottle label so you know what you are buys, and what all the different terms mean.
I looked at several other books and they didn't seem to cover things as well or as well-worded. According to himself, at any rate, Mr. Harper is the first gaijin to really work his way into the Sake world.
I don't think I've quite made myself a Sake snob. But I can read the bottle, and am working my way slowly through the various Sakes out there.
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Not only is this a very readable book about Japanese sake, but it is written by an American who moved to Japan and entered the closed world of kura-bito (sake brewers) and became one himself. Harper describes the history of sake, how it is made, where to buy it, and what to buy. And what is equally helpful is that it is in a vest-pocket-sized book that you can carry with you when traveling, going to a restaurant or shopping for sake. This book is for the sake connoisseur and novice alike. The process of making sake is more complex than wine (it requires 2 microorganisms, not just yeast). Moreover, through all the variations of rice processing, fermentation, types of clarification, aging, fortification, there is a large array of sake classification, whose terms are all in Japanese. Harper breaks through the fog and clearly lays out the differences among all these. He also describes the different flavor profiles that goes with each one. Other useful sections include a large listing of recommended sakes with their labels reproduced for easier recognition, lists of restaurants in the US and Japan, retailers in the US and Japan, major producers, and web links. All in under 250 pages. This is one of the most useful books on sake you can buy.
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