Brief Overview of Sake (Rice Wine)
Japan's Original Alcohol Beverage "Sake"
Sake (also known as Rice Wine) is a Japanese alcoholic beverage, which is made by fermenting rice. It is said there are more than 5,000 sake brands in all over Japan.
Percentage of alcohol in Sake varies from 13% to 16%. It takes clean water from a spring to make Sake, and Sake makers take advantage of the many kinds of natural clean water available in Japan to make their original Sake. Sake is enjoyable in either warm or chilled, depending on the brand and season.
Extremely Elaborate and Complex Process to Make Sake
As other alcoholic beverages in the world, Sake also needs the process of fermentation. This is a process which yeast converts sugar into alcohol. However, rice does not contain any sugar, so it can’t be fermented as is. Therefore, it has to be first converted into sugar with a particular mold called "Koji‐kin". After the process where “Koji-kin" converted the nutrition of rice into sugar, then added to yeast known as "Kobo" and left to ferment. It may be said that the making process of Sake is comparatively more complicated than that of other alcoholic beverages in the world.
One of the Oldest Alcohol Beverages in the World
The earliest reference of alcohol in Japan is recorded in the Chinese book of 3rd century, and that described the drinking and dancing culture of Japan. Also, Sake is mentioned several times in the "Kojiki", which is the Japan's first written history book, compiled in 712 AD. Since then, Sake has played a central role in Japanese religion, life and culture for more than 1,300 years while the knowledge and techniques involved in Sake making have spread to every corner of the land. Because of its simple ingredients and sophisticated method of production, sake is said to be the important factor for contributing the longest life expectancy of Japanese people in the world.
Go to Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association
1. Documentary of Sake (4:45)
2. Documentary of Sake Brewer (27:13)
Types of Sake
Regarded as the highest-grade sake. It is brewed with very highly polished rice and even more precise and labor intensive methods. The pinnacle of the brewers' art. It deliver a good blend of refined taste with acidity and umami with generally light, complex and fragrant.
Brewed with labor-intensive steps, eschewing machinery for traditional tools and methods, using highly polished rice and fermented at colder temperatures for longer periods of time. Light, fruity, refined.
It is made only from rice, koji and water, highlighting the flavor of the rice and koji more than other varieties. There are no requirements regarding polishing ratio. Junmai is typically high in acidity and umami, with relatively little sweetness.
Made with rice, water, koji and a very small amount of pure distilled alcohol ("brewers' alcohol") to help extract flavor and aroma. Light, mildly fragrant, easy to drink.
As western wine has wine glass specially made for the enjoyment of wine, Sake also has the utensils specially made for the enjoyment of Sake. Most of these utensils were influenced by “Shinto”, the religion in Japan.
The decanter used to pour sake is known as an o-choshi or tokkuri. The mouth of this container is made intentionally small, both to facilitate smooth pouring and prevent the warmed sake inside from cooling. The vessel’s design ensures that its contents remain warm until the last drop has been consumed.
At one time small, shallow cups called sakazuki, were primarily used to sip sake. Originally fashioned from red clay, they later evolved into cups made of red lacquer or ceramic.
Barely bigger than a thimble, the typical Ochoko cup enables one to drink its contents in one gulp.
Somewhat larger cup than the Ochoko is the Gui-Nomi. This cup holds enough for two to three mouthfuls, making it ideal for those especially fond of sake. It's also great for drinking sake with a meal.
Another vessel that definitely adds to the sake experience is the Masu. This is a square wooden, box-like cup typically made of cedar. The aroma of the wood meshes with the fragrance of the sake to create a drinking experience that’s altogether different from what you would get drinking from a ceramic Ochoko. It’s an experience that brings one back to the roots of this drink so steeped with history. Since the aromas of the wood will compete with the aromas of GINJO and DAI GINJO, a masu may not be the best choice for these types of sake.
Another unusual and ingeniously devised drinking vessel is the kiki-choko. This white cup with two blue concentric circles painted at the bottom, is chiefly used when taste-testing different varieties of sake. The unique pattern enables the taster to better evaluate the color, clarity, and purity of the sake.
History of Sake
The origin of Sake
Although it is not certain when Japanese people began to make liquor from rice, but it seems to be after rice cropping, especially wet-rice cultivation, had been established and its stable harvesting had become possible.
The oldest record of liquor in Japan is described in the section of Japan in Encounters with Eastern Barbarians of “Sanguo Zhi”; (History of the Three Kingdoms) (so-called Gishi wajin den) which was written in the third century in China. This book describes Japanese were “fond of the drink” and also had a custom for mourners to “sing, dance and drink” at funeral services. However, this can not indicate what materials were used for that liquor or how it was brewed. Incidentally, this description of a close relationship between liquor and religion in “Sanguo Zhi” provides one of the reasons why sake brewing began as a task of miko (a Shinto shrine maiden).
In Japan, a brewing pit which was used for sake brewing in China was discovered from a pit dwelling house in the Jomon period, around 1000 B.C. There, some pieces of fruit such as Sambucus racemosa (ssp. kamtschatica), tara vine, mulberry and raspberry were discovered with pupa of a fruit fly which is attracted to fermented food. Since the liquor did not seem to be brewed from rice, it is controversial whether it could be said to be a direct origin of sake. However, these historic sites are important because they show the original stage of brewing in Japan.
It was about 500 years after the period of “Sanguo Zhi,” when a clear record of rice brewed sake appeared in Japan. There is the description in “Harima no kuni fudoki” (the topography of Harima Province) (written around 716). In a description, since dried boiled rice, which was portable food, became wet and got moldy, a person had sake brewed with it and had a party with that sake. This is a brewing method which utilized the saccharification of Aspergillus oryzae and it is similar to the one of modern sake.
In “Harima no kuni fudoki,” there is also a description on “sumisake” (refined sake). Some people say that this is the first appearance of present seishu (refined sake), but it is controversial. Ancient liquor generally seemed to be a soggy paste such as Nerizake (antique term for shirozake, or white sake) which still exists in Izumo and Hakata regions.
Even today, in the Niiname-sai festival (ceremonial offering by the Emperor of newly-harvested rice to the deities) of the Imperial family, the two kinds of sake of shiroki (white sake) and kuroki (black sake) which are brewed in such ancient methods are served. Kuroki is a black liquor made by the process where a grass called harlequin glorybower is baked in a covered pan and its ash is mixed into a turbid shiroki. And now, it does not seem to have been impossible to brew a clear and thin seishu which can be seen today from such a thick ancient sake. It is because there was a primitive filtering technique with cloth, carbon, sand and so on, if only for filtering turbidity. Therefore, it is not difficult to think that seishu was produced in Jodai period, about the same time as the production of sake itself also began.
Difference between Japanese Sake and Chinese and Korean Liquor
Today, while wheat malt (or mochi-koji [a kind of malt fermented on rice cake]) is mainly used for liquor brewing in China and the Korean Peninsula with rhizopus and mucor, malted-rice (or bara-koji [a kind of malt made of heated grain such as wheat]) with pure Aspergillus oryzae is used for Japanese liquor. If the brewing method with rice malt was transmitted via the Korean Peninsula, naturally it would have been wheat malt. However, since there was no record of liquor made with wheat malt such as makgeolli (Korean traditional liquor) in Japan, the out of Korean Peninsula theory can not be true. In recent years, another theory is also influential which regards that using Claviceps virens Sakurai, that is, a lump of mold which was naturally-induced on rice ears in the rice paddy, was the origin of malt in Japan.
Sake Brewing in the Imperial Court
In 689, a department named sakabe (the office in charge of sake brewing) was placed in Sake no tsukasa (also referred as Miki no tsukasa [the office in charge of the imperial use of sake, sweet sake, or vinegar etc.]) in Kunaisho (Ministry of the Sovereign’s Household), based on Asukakiyomihararyo (the legal code of Japanese ancient state). In 701, it was further systematized by the Taiho Code, which led to the establishment of a brewing system for the Imperial Court, by the Imperial Court.
Sakabe was not only a name of a department but also an expert of brewing which corresponds to today’s toji (a sake brewer). According to “Ryonoshuge”(Commentaries on the Civil Statutes) which was edited in the latter part of the ninth century, the sake brewed there was a thin sake by mixing rice, bara-koji rice malt used for today’s sake brewing as well, and water together in jars and fermenting for about 10 days.
In the “Engishiki” (967) written about a century later, the major sake was thick, brewing rice and malt several times, which can be seemed as the origin of dan-jikomi (the three-stage preparation) in later ages. In addition, there is a description that there were 10 methods of brewing which reminds us of the origin of today’s shochu (distilled spirit), kijoshu, and sake of low alcohol concentration, such as liquor made of wheat, a sweet liquor made with much malts, and low-grade sake adding water. Moreover, it can be said that those techniques of juicing moromi (raw unrefined sake) by hanging in filtering cloths and skimming supernatant were the same as those of present.
"Engishiki" describes a structure of sacred sake tanks at Sake no tsukasa in Kunaisho to show that various sake liquors were already brewed in the almost same methods of brewing modern sake. Among them, a method described as 'Shiori' led to the base of the development of today's kijoshu.
High Quality Sake Produced by Temples
After that, Soboshu received a high reputation which brewed in temples instead of the brewing organization directly under the Imperial Court. Among many Soboshu, 'nanto-morohaku' brewed by temples in Nara had kept a high reputation for a long time until the Muromachi period. It refers to the sake with high clarity, almost the same as today's seishu, brewed by the method using polished rice for both kojimai (rice for malt) and kakemai (rice for moromi [raw unrefined sake]) which is the base for present sake brewing, and it was called 'Morohaku' (sake of 100 percent polished white rice) compared to nigorizake (unfiltered sake) which was the mainstream sake at that time. The term had been used for a high-grade sake such as 'kudari-morohaku' in and after the Edo period. However, the amount of production of seishu was small in this period and it is thought that it was spread among only limited social classes such as dominant nobility.
Sake in the Kamakura Period
The flourishing of commerce and the spread of the monetary economy in various places led to the distribution of sake as a product which had the same economic value as rice. In Kyoto, especially centered in Fushimi, so-called 'Tsukurizakaya' (a sake brewery) which produced sake in its own factories and had shops to sell the sake directly, began to flourish. On the other hand, aiming to secure taxes and based on the asceticism of samurai, policies which forbade the trade, manufacturing, and transportation of sake were often implemented.
Sake in the Muromachi Period
In the early part of the Muromachi period, it is described in Sakaya Meibo, a document which registered sake shops and left in the Kitano-jinja Shrine in Kyoto, that the number of sake breweries around Kyoto in 1425 was 342. In addition, in "the Shibata family document: The origin of sake brewing" handed down in the Nada Ward, it is described that 'in ancient times, governmental officials called Miki no tsukasa brewed sake for rites and festivals in Dainairi (the Imperial Court), but in the Muromachi period the demand of sake became too high for them to sufficiently supply it, so relatives of the governmental officials began to brew sake in town, among which the sake produced around Sesshu was good quality,' which showed that the sake brewing industry grew rapidly in the Muromachi period.
The sake breweries at that time had a capital and many of them were also doso (pawnbrokers and moneylenders) at the same time who employed Yojinbo (bodyguards) in order to collect debt and guard their fortunes. Such a sake brewery with economic power also began to produce rice malt which had been done by different industries from sake brewery, and as a result, it came into conflict with the guild of conventional suppliers of malts. This conflict developed into the military conflict called the koji riot in the Bunan era in 1444, and as a result, the profession of supplying malt in Kyoto was extinguished and the koji-za (rice malt guild) was dismissed.
In "Goshu no nikki" (The technical book on sake brewing) written in the beginning of the Muromachi period, there are descriptions on techniques such as today's dan-jikomi, technique of fermenting lactobacillus, pasteurization and filtration by charcoal. As to the method of sake brewing, in addition to the conventional katahaku using polished white rice for only kakemai, morohaku using for both kakemai and kojimai appeared and its elegant flavor became popular. In "Tamonin Nikki" (The Diary compiled from 1478 to 1618 by Eishun and other Buddhist priests at Tamonin Temple), in addition to a description on the above pasteurization, the details of such a traditional method of sake brewing which had lasted until the Edo period are described.
Soon, sake breweries appeared in various places other than Kyoto and the sake produced there came to be distributed in the sake market of Kyoto. The sake breweries in Kyoto called the sake coming from other provinces 'yosozake' (sake brewed outside of the Kyoto area) or 'nukezake' (sake slipped through the law) and put up guards against them, and they tried hard to push them out. The sake breweries and town societies in and around the capital of Kyoto often submitted petitions to stop the selling of cheap yosozake to the bakufu's magistrate's offices. However, this yosozake was the beginning of jizake (local sake) which later became the center of Japanese sake culture.
Sake in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period
Francis XAVIER who introduced Christianity to Japan wrote in the letter to his boss at the Society of Jesus in 1552 that 'sake is brewed from rice, but there is no other liquor; the amount is small and it is expensive,' which was the first report on sake written by Europeans. Of course, since Xavier evaluated sake from the standard of wine which was the liquor of his own culture, his impressions on its amount and price are interesting. In addition, Luis Frois, a missionary who had contacts with Nobunaga ODA and left many records, sent the information to his home country in 1581 such as 'while we cool liquor, Japanese warm it.'
Promoted by the cultural independencies of various provinces in the rivalry of powerful leaders of the Sengoku period (period of warring states), many new local brands were produced in various places, integrated with the food culture of common people in each places, and they became diversified in the points of taste, quality, amount of production, and so on.
In the earlier period, the quality of well-cured sake was said to be overwhelmingly higher and the price was more expensive than those of new sake. It can be guessed that well-cured sake had a brown color and a flavor like that of soy sauce as today's Shaoxing rice wine has. However, after the mass production of sake became possible, barrels were used instead of jars or earthenware pots in order to transport it. Jars and earthenware pots were brewing containers devised and developed for well-cured sake whose quality could be kept only if hermetically sealed, but a barrel could not be sealed up. For this reason, well-cured sake became less distributed, and people came to drink new sake gradually. The demand against new sake became higher and its price also became more expensive relatively.
In this way, it seems that the sake had changed completely from unfiltered sake to seishu by the end of the medieval period. However, it did not mean that unfiltered sake disappeared then, and seishu was not the same as the one at present. Unfiltered sake, including Doburoku (unrefined sake) brewed by farmers in their houses, had been continuously produced and distributed as a low-grade liquor which was cheaper and handy than seishu. And generally, since katahaku and namizake (sake brewed from unpolished rice) were the mainstream, it is thought that most of the seishu were yellowish and had a thick taste like today's mirin (sweet cooking rice wine) which kept zatsumi (unfavorable taste in sake) of unpolished rice bran.
Sake in the Edo Period
Around this period, sake was exported to Japanese quarters and royal families in various places in Southeastern Asia through the trading by shogunate-licensed trading ship. Especially in Batavia (a part of Indonesia at present), the base of Dutch East India Company (abbr. VOC), sake was regularly imported and became a necessity of people's lives. Since sake had a little higher alcohol content than wine from Europe (mainly from Holland), a unique food tradition where sake was drunk as an aperitif and wine was drunk during meals in Southeastern Asia including Batavia was established.
In the early Edo period Japan had a technique which was later named as sake brewing in all seasons, and the sake were brewed five times throughout a year such as, new brew of sake, aishu (sake brewed in the middle season), kanmae-zake (also referred as kanmae-sake; sake brewed before winter), kanshu (sake brewed in winter) to haruzake (sake brewed in early spring). Because sake brewing needs a large amount of rice, it always competes with the food supply including rice. Therefore, the bakufu controlled sake brewing in various forms depending on the price of rice and food situation at the time.
At first, it introduced the system of sakekabu (an official certificate of sake brewing) for the first time in 1657, which was a licensing system for the sake brewing industry as anyone who did not have sakekabu could not brew sake. After the technique of sake made in the winter was established in Itami in 1667 by improving the preparation of kanshu, all other sake brewing was forbidden in 1673 as part the sake brewing control (the ban on sake brewing except in winter). As a result, sake brewing in all seasons was interrupted for a while. In this way, sake brewing was limited to winter so that farmers came to take on toji as a seasonal migrant worker only in winter.
Soon, various craftsmen groups of toji who had various local characteristics had been formed. Around this time, Tsukurizakaya generally brewed and sold wholesale in various parts of Japan. Especially in Edo, which was a large market by population concentration, professional wholesale merchants group appeared. And the yoriai (gathering) of wholesale merchants which sorted shipments arrived at Edo was also formed.
Introduction to Overseas Countries
In 1872 sake was exhibited in the World Exposition in Vienna. According to the 'official' history of sake in Japan supported by the Japan Sake Brewers Association as of March 2006, this entry of the World Exposition in Vienna seems to be the first 'export' of sake to Europe. However, it can not be said that this is true. In history, sake was exported to Southeastern Asia through the trading by shogunate-licensed trading ship in the early part of the Edo period.
Especially after that, there are signs of that sake had already been brought to Europe including Holland through Batavia (a part of Indonesia at present) which was the base of the Dutch East India Company and where drinking sake was established as part of its unique food culture, during the Edo period. In addition, it is clear that the Russian Empire introduced sake from Kamchatka to Europe through Siberia in the latter part of Edo period. However, it can be said to be true that sake was introduced to Europe officially with the government's approval and support after the Meiji restoration.
Atkinson, an English man who came to Japan in the period of Rokumeikan (Deer-cry Hall), watched the method of pasteurization at sake breweries in various parts of Japan in 1881. He was surprised that toji could judge 130 degrees Fahrenheit (about 55 Celsius) precisely by seeing the Japanese letter of 'no' (の) could be written somehow on the surface of sake without a thermometer, which was different from the modern way of sterilization in Western countries that had been discovered by Louis PASTEUR in 1862.
The Development of Rice for Sake
Until then it was common for large landowners to stock up with a certain amount of rice from the harvest every year in order to prepare for poor crops or famine. But there was a risk that these stockpiled rice became old and useless if there was no poor crop or famine. Then, they used stockpiled rice as a material for sake brewing which they managed. In the regions where rice came to be used for sake brewing more and more in this way, the study of rice which was good for sake brewing rather than meals came to be made actively.
After Tomokiyo OKAYAMA in Take-gun, Ise Province, made a success in pure-line separation of the breed which was good for sake brewing from Yamato (a kind of rice) which was a native variety in 1860, other people were also successful in the selection and pure-line separation as follows and established good rice cultivars for sake brewing.
In 1866, Jinzo KISHIMOTO in Okayama Prefecture established Bisen Omachi from a native variety. In 1877, Jujiro MARUO in Hyogo Prefecture established Shinriki from a native variety, Hodoyoshi. In 1889, Otoichi ITO in Yamaguchi Prefecture established Kokuryomiyako from a native variety of miyako in Hyogo Prefecture. In 1891, Shinpei WATANABE (渡邊信平) in Tottori Prefecture established Goriki from a native variety. In addition, although there are many theories on its origin, yamadabo was established in Hyogo Prefecture in the early part of the Meiji period, which later became the representing rice for brewing sake in Japan.
However, the brewing industry during this period when scientific reproducibility was not introduced, the technique was poorer than that of today and sake often putrefied during brewing in spite of using good rice for sake brewing. Therefore, the government needed to lead the information exchanging on sake brewing all over the country and to improve the techniques of sake breweries with each other. Soon it led to the establishment of the system of Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyokai (National New Sake Appraising and Deliberating Fair) in the latter part of the Meiji period.
Competition from Beer and Wine
After the Meiji Restoration, many beer brewing manufacturers joined the liquor brewing industry, but the sake breweries and wholesale merchants of sake did not favor the appearance of beer which competed with their products. The conventional wholesale merchants did not accommodate beer, and as a result, sake retail stores did not sell it. Therefore, beer came to be sold at other shops such as a wholesale drug companies instead of liquor shops, which made a different system of distribution from that of sake. In addition, at first the Meiji government did not impose heavy taxes on beer and wine like the tax on sake because it aimed to make people consume more Western liquors as part of a policy of Europeanization. This was one of the reasons for the rapid diffusion of beer among Japanese.
Beer began to be taxed in 1901, but wine was not taxed. After that, until the end of the Pacific War, while various taxes such as a brewing tax, a commodity tax, and a tax on the total shipment were imposed on sake, wine had no imposed liquor tax except the license fee for brewing. This saved the basic power of beer and wine industry, which made its revival in the postwar period easier. The increase of the market shares of beer and wine from the end of the Showa period to present was influenced by the policy of Europeanization in the beginning of the Meiji period.
The Modernization of the Sake Brewing Industry
From the latter part of the Meiji period (after the Sino-Japanese War) and the Taisho period, sake brewing had been rapidly modernized. Some people say that this caused an extinction of traditional methods. Before modern times, what we call scientific reproducibility had always been a big problem for sake brewing. Even if a good sake was made by kimoto (a traditional method to make sake mash), it was almost impossible to 'brew the same sake again.
As for Fermenting yeast, mainly the natural yeast in the air or the yeast living in the brewery since old times (referred to as yeast in storehouse or yeast in house) were used. But since the strain was not stable and easily mixed with contamination, the quality of sake was not stable. And once putrefaction occurred, since the bacteria causing it entered into wooden barrels or wooden buckets, it gave a bad influence for several years, which was a disaster for sake breweries for a long time. The brewing environment which did not have any risk of such disaster was called safe brewing, which had been an important idea in the brewing industry until the middle part of the Showa period when sake brewing often suffered putrefaction.
The Meiji government, which won the Sino-Japanese War from 1894 to 1895, regarded the modernization of brewery industry which enabled safe brewing as part of national strategy and aggressively supported it by introducing microbiology of Western countries. The National Research Institute of Brewing (present National Research Institute of Brewing [NRIB]) was founded in 1904 under the control of Ministry of the Treasury. Soon, Yamahai-jikomi (a method of sake brewing) was developed there in 1909 and seed mash made by the quick fermentation method was devised in the following year, 1910.
The Change of Distribution and Consumption Forms
Previously, sake usually had been locally consumed as local products except for famous brand like Nada gogo where a large amount was shipped to Edo as kudarizake. People usually drank local sake freely in the situations like festivals from yontodaru (a barrel of about 72 liters), or comparatively rich people went to sake shops with their own sake bottles and bought sake by masu (measure) from a sake cask wrapped in a rush mat. Therefore, local sake which was called jizake today merely came out of towns and villages.
However, from the latter part of the Meiji period, sake began to be sold in bottle little by little and distributed outside of the towns and villages where the sake was produced. In 1901, Hakutsuru sake brewery began to sell sake in 1.8 liter bottles and big manufacturers increasingly began to sell bottled sake. Bottled sake changed how sake was drank, in other words, people's consumption form and diet.
At one time, Japanese commonly had sake only several times a year with licking salt on the corner of masu and drank heavily. But they began to buy bottled sake which they favored in liquor shops and drink it during dinner or after dinner with meals or sakana (appetizers taken with alcoholic drinks) almost every night until they got drunk to some extent (which was called 'namayoi' [a little drunk] in those days). This change of the consumption style slowly spread from the latter part of the Meiji period to the early part of the Showa period. It is the base of today's consumption form through the War and the restoration period postwar.
Temperature of Japanese Sake
Japanese Sake is Enjoyable in Many Temperatures
Japanese sake is among only a handful of alcoholic beverages from around the world that are enjoyable in many temperatures of warm and chilled. "Ginjo" and "Dai Ginjo" are most delicious when slightly chilled to maintain a fine balance between their flavor and aroma. Other types of sake taste better when served warm or hot. When warmed to the ideal temperature, these varieties go well with food and are easy on the constitution too. You will surprise how different the same sake tastes depending on whether it’s served warm or chilled.
The Finer the Sake, the More Sensitive it is to Temperature
In Japan, there is an well-organised classification to describe sake's various serving temperatures. The best temperature to serve a particular sake is usually indicated on the label. What's nice about drinking sake in warm is that it produces a mild lingering "buzz" faster than it would if served chilled. That means you can enjoy it to the fullest while drinking it in moderation.
By the same token, there are some types of sake that taste best when served chilled. The highly aromatic Ginjo is best served cold or simply “Hinata-kan”, that means “sun bathed" to about 30°C, to avoid upsetting the delicate balance between its fine bouquet and flavor by overheating. “Gen-shu" and “Namazake" are also most enjoyable when chilled. “Junmai” tastes great both warmed as well as at room temperature but it's also just as delicious when served nice and cold.
Aroma of Japanese Sake
The aroma of Japanese sake is described in classifications shown below in general.