SENDAI--John Gauntner and Christopher Hughes carved out reputations as experts in a field that few Japanese can even claim to have: a deep knowledge and appreciation of sake.

Such is their expertise on judging the quality of traditional rice wine that both men were asked last year to serve as jurors in a prestigious sake-tasting competition hosted by the Tohoku Seishu Kanpyokai (Tohoku Sake Awards) to determine the best brands from the Tohoku region.

The final round of the competition was held Oct. 8 at the Sendai Regional Taxation Bureau here, where numbered cups of sake were presented to 21 jurors dressed in white coats for sampling.

The jurors, who were experts and manufacturers from the six northeastern prefectures of the Tohoku region, included staff members from technology assistance centers, brewers recommended by the prefectural sake and “shochu” (distilled spirits) makers’ associations and technical officers from the taxation bureau.

Standing in that elite group were Gauntner, 57, who hails from the United States, and Hughes, a 37-year-old Briton.

It marked the second time since 2018 for sake journalist Gauntner to serve as a juror. In his tasting note for Jyokigen from Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, which won this year’s top Grand Honor Prize in the Junmai-shu Category, he said: “Floral and honey-laced aroma lead to a rich, umami-driven flavor that is reined in by a perfectly restraining acidity.”

The decision to bring foreign experts into the jury pool is aimed at expanding overseas consumption of sake. The tasting notes penned in English also come in handy.

An Ohio native, Gauntner studied electronic engineering at university. After graduation, he visited Japan as an English teacher through an education ministry-sponsored program.

In his second year in 1989, Gauntner was invited by a colleague to a restaurant where he drank sake. He marveled at the way the taste kept changing even though he stuck to the same brand.

“I was blown away by how amazing the quality of the sake was,” Gauntner recalled. “(Western) wine is also extensive, but Japanese sake is more profound.”

Now a leading foreign figure in the sake industry, Gauntner has served as a judge in the sake division of the International Wine Challenge (IWC), regarded as the world’s most authoritative wine competition, for the past 10 years. He even served as a judge for the Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyokai (Annual Japan Sake Awards), the country’s only nationwide sake competition.

“In addition to profundity, Japanese sake is characterized by the subtlety,” said Hughes, a native Londoner.

After learning Japanese at a British university, Hughes landed a job in a company dealing in Japanese food ingredients. He became involved in sake-related work after joining a study session hosted in Britain by the president of Iwate Prefecture-based brewery Nanbu Bijin Co.

Hughes studied sake with books written by Gauntner. He now serves as a senior instructor for sake at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the world’s largest wine education institute headquartered in London.

Hughes was critical about the entries of this year’s Tohoku Sake Awards, saying: “They were on a high level, although I felt unsatisfactory because I expected to find junmai-shu (pure rice sake) that was profound.”

When asked what they thought was a challenge for sake to be enjoyed worldwide like wine, Gauntner, who says he drinks sake everyday, pointed out that there are no specialists in restaurants outside Japan who can explain sake to customers, like sommeliers.

“The historical story behind each brand can be accepted in any country,” he said. “It should be the selling point.”

Hughes added: “It is easier to sell aromatic sake because it is compared with wine. But when it comes to pairing with food, junmai-shu rich with ‘umami’ (savoriness) goes better. It is junmai-shu that should be promoted to overseas markets.”

However, both of them agreed that Japanese ought to have more appreciation for the charms of sake.