We in the West are becoming more familiar with Sake. There are now many more Japanese restaurants in our cities and all of them will have a drinks menu that will include a sake or two. It’s the Japanese national alcoholic beverage and most people already know that it’s made of rice.
Yes, it’s called sake in the English-speaking world and in most other countries as well, but in Japan that word refers to every form of alcohol. The Japanese term for this specific drink is Nihonshu which just means “Japanese alcohol”.
Sake is an ancient drink that started as more of a food. Rice was first chewed and then fermented. The earliest reference to alcohol in Japan is found in “The Book of Wei” written by Wei Shou from 551 to 554 and is a text in Chinese. Sake is also referred to in the “Kojiki”, written by Ō no Yasumaro at the request of Empress Gemmei, Japan’s earliest history document, which dates from around 711. By the Asuka period (from 592 to 710) sake as we know it was being made from the traditional ingredients of rice, water and yellow kōji mould (Aspergillus oryzae). In the Heian period (from 794 to 1185) sake was a drink reserved for religious ceremony and not made for popular consumption.
Sake production was a government monopoly for centuries, but in the 1100s temples were allowed to produce sake, and they became the key producers for the next 500 years.
Sake is regularly described as rice wine but, unlike the wine that one would make from grapes, sake is produced via a brewing method similar to that of beer. The sugar necessary to produce alcohol must first be converted from rice starch. The difference in alcohol content between wine, beer and sake is that table wine usually has 8 to 14% alcohol, beer has 3 to 6%, whilst sake has 12 to 18% alcohol.
During the Meiji Restoration (restoring imperial rule to Japan in 1868), laws allowed anybody set up their own sake breweries. Around 30,000 of them opened across Japan, and most that continued past this era were those operated by wealthy landowners who grew table rice. They would have some of their crop left over at the end of the season and, rather than wasting the grain, they sent it to their breweries to be made into sake.
When in World War II Japan found itself short of rice for sake-making, alcohol was added to increase its volume. As early as the late 17th century it had been discovered that small amounts of alcohol could be added to sake before pressing to extract more flavour from the rice, but during the War pure alcohol and glucose were added, to considerably increase the sake yield. The majority of modern sake is now made with additional alcohol.
In Japan sake is served chilled, at room temperature, or warm, depending on the custom of the drinker, the quality of the sake, and the weather. Warm or hot sake is popular when it’s cold outside and it’s said that heating improves a poor bottle of sake. The best quality sake is never consumed hot because it’s considered that the flavour would be impaired.
Sake is usually drunk from traditional small cups called o choko. These are stemless and usually ceramic, and many have become collectors’ items. They were preferred as there was less chance of them being upturned by the swinging sleeves of those wearing elaborate kimonos. Stemmed glasses are now sometimes used for the finest sake and one finds them used increasingly for sake tasting. It is the custom for guests to serve others rather than themselves. Another traditional drinking vessel is the wooden masu. This is a small square box usually made of Japanese cedar, and was originally used as a one-portion measure for rice.
Sake at home is best kept refrigerated or in a cool cupboard. If stored at room temperature it is best enjoyed within a couple of months as it is believed that sake does not age well, although there are now some bottles that are considered to improve with age. After opening, a bottle of sake remains at its best a little longer than would wine, but should still be consumed as soon as possible.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018