What is sake?
An alcoholic beverage made by fermenting and maturing, using rice and water as its main ingredients.
In general, sake refers to rice wine, a brewed beverage whose main ingredients are rice, rice malt, and water. It is made by steaming white rice and fermenting and maturing it after adding rice malt and water. Since its alcohol is obtained by fermenting raw ingredients, it is classified as a brewed beverage. Unlike beer and wine, which are also brewed beverages, sake is characterized by requiring a processed called saccharification since sugar is not used as one of its basic ingredients. Three definitions of rice wine are given by Japan’s Liquor Tax Act: 1) It should be made by using rice, malted rice, and water as the raw ingredients, which were fermented and filtered; 2) It should be made by using rice, malted rice, water, rice wine lees, and other items stipulated by legislation, which were fermented and filtered; 3) It should be made by adding rice wine lees to rice wine, which is then filtered.
Sake can be classified into different types, such as daiginjo-shu, ginjo-shu, junmai-shu, honjozo-shu, and namazake. Additionally, depending on the rice-polishing ratio and the fortification of alcohol, its flavors can be divided into gracefully dry, gracefully sweet, mellow dry, and mellow sweet. To quickly explain each taste; 1) gracefully dry is a sake that is gentle on the palate and can be drunk without resistance; 2) gracefully sweet sake has a light sweetness that is not persistent, and has a mild taste; 3) mellow dry is sake in which five elements of sake’s taste – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and tart – have been integrated with the best balance and have a profound taste; and 4) mellow sweet sake which has abundant richness that utilizes the sweetness intrinsic to rice.
There are various theories on the origin of sake. However, accounts on alcohol made with rice can be found in "Harima Fudoki" (Records of the Culture and Geography of the Harima Province), compiled during the Nara period (710-794). "Engishiki" (codes and procedures on national rites and prayers) recorded that various types of Japanese sake have been produced using a method that is not very different from the current method. Until the early Edo period (1603-1868), sake was brewed a total of five times a year. In particular, it became clear that kanzukuri, brewed during the winter period, was the best and this process became emphasized. Furthermore, innovative processing methods unparalleled in the rest of the world at the time were developed. These included pasteurization (a low-temperature sterilization method) to improve the preservative property and mixture method (that is, alcohol addition) of hashirashochu spirit that lowers the risk of acidification by hiochi (one of the issues that can occur during a brewing process due to the growth of hiochi-kin bacteria) while at the same time improving the yield rate and adjusting the flavor.
It is recorded that there were 27,000 sake breweries in 1698. In the mid-Edo period, in conjunction of the development of marine transportation and the establishment of a wholesale organization, sake brewing became a major process industry surpassing the local sake. The most prominent sake was sake of Nada. It was carried to Edo on a cargo vessel called taru-kaisen, and enjoyed an immense popularity among common people.
The brewing method of sake and its management methods are complex and sophisticated. The unique features of these methods are the “parallel multiple-fermentation”, in which saccharification and fermentation are conducted at the same time, and “hi-ire”, in which sake that has been pressed is sterilized using heat before being stored, which aims at maturing the flavor by stopping the movement of oxygen.
The people who have been passing on these techniques were the chief brewers – or toji- at sake breweries. Currently, the technical experts that make sake are called brewing technicians, the head of a sake brewery is called a toji, and other technicians are known as kurabito to differentiate.
Although sake is brewed all across Japan, the amount of sake brewed is decreasing every year. Currently, there are about 1,500 sake “kura”, or warehouses (a receptacle that sake is stored is called “kura”). Furthermore, there are different characteristics in each sake brewery and region. Nada from Hyogo, Fushimi from Kyoto, and Saijo from Hiroshima, are said to be the three major sake brewing areas.
1. Sake of Nada
Nada, as the name Nada-Gogo (five villages) suggests, is comprised of Imazu-Go, Nishinomiya-Go, Uozaki-Go, Mikage-Go, and Nishi-Go. Nada, with sake breweries scattered along the coastline between Hanshin, is one of the major sake producing areas in Japan. Sake in nada is brewed by using unripened rice malt and hard water called Miyamizu. It is strongly fermented for fewer days. Newly-brewed sake made in such a matter is sour and has a rough texture. Thus, it is called Otoko-zake (male sake). This youthful sake matures during the summer, adopting well-balanced refreshing qualities. The quality of sake increasing with the mellowness increasing by autumn in such a manner is called akibare (fine autumn weather) or akiagari (fine weather after autumn). This is a major feature of sake from Nada.
2. Sake from Fushimi
The region of Fushimi greatly prospered due to the construction by Taiko Hideyoshi of Fushimi Castle and attracted much attention. It went through further developments during the Edo period as an important place of land and water transportation. The number of sake brewers increased rapidly and the foundations of a famous brewing district were laid. . In the late Meiji era (1868-1912), Fushimi became famous throughout Japan as the place with the best sake. Furthermore, Iwai, rice produced in Kyoto and suitable for brewing sake, is harvested in Tanba and Tango, and the Iwai sake is made in Kyoto breweries, mainly in Fushimi. Its features are a graceful flavor and unique aroma.
3. Sake from Hiroshima
Hiroshima is referred to as one of three major sake brewing areas in Japan, along with Nada and Fushimi. Initially, since most of the wells in Hiroshima had soft water, sake in Hiroshima used to be sweet, prone to become poor in quality, and spoiled quickly. However, Senzaburo Miura, a brewer from Akitsu, invented a soft water brewing method in 1888-1897, which involved properly growing rice malt and slowly fermenting unrefined sake at a low temperature. With this method, it became successful to brew soft, mild sake that utilizes the characteristics of soft water. Thereafter, the sake produced was smooth and soft, and had unique richness that was deep and extremely savory, was called Hiroshima’s Onna-zake (female sake), in contrast to Nada’s Otoko-zake (male sake).
Selection and drinking
The above sections provided a detailed description on sake. So the question is, how would one actually select the sake to drink? This may seem obvious, but it’s best to ask the store owner the recommended sake of the region that matches the food. Furthermore, there are different types of serving methods depending on the temperature of sake, such as atsukan, nurukan, and hiya. This also depends on one’s liking. However, since there is always a certain drinking method that suits specific sake, it is a good idea to ask the recommended drinking method.
Here’s a piece of trivia: there are places that pour sake to the point that it is about to spill out of the glass (there are many places that actually do pour till it spills over). When that happens, it is recommended to bring your mouth close to the glass and drink the sake by sipping it without lifting the glass. This is not considered bad manners. Instead, it is an aspect of Japanese popular culture that could be regarded as a drinking etiquette for sake.
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- Besides serving oden and ramen, roadside stands in Japan also provide sake in one sho bottles to small glass cups.
- Neat dry sake complement sashimi dishes well.
- Yakitori is the representative food that best complements sake. Cheap sake and easily available snacks proved to be a popular combination.