Drinking in Japan: Sake
Sake (酒) or Nihonshu (日本酒)
Outside of Japan, Sake refers to what Japanese call Nihonshu, which literally means “Japanese alcohol” and designate Japanese rice wine. In Japanese, sake is actually the term for liquor/alcohol (including Nihonshu). This sometimes causes a misunderstanding when tourists try to order sake and are asked back “Sure, but what kind?”. Through this article, we will first cover the origin of sake and the evolution of its fabrication process, then look at a typical brewery. Finally, we will describe the various types and grades used to classify it.
In addition to being a popular recreational alcohol option, sake/nihonshu is used in many formal/religious ceremonies (including weddings), as well as for cooking purposes. Sake is usually poured from a tall bottle (徳利 | tokkuri) into a small porcelain cup (盃 | sakazuki) or small cups called choko or o-choko (お猪口). It is served chilled (around 10°C/50°F) or hot (50°C/122°F), or at a mid-level temperature in between (levels are based set every 5°C/9°F).
Origins of Sake
The origins of sake go back around 2500 years, beginning with widespread cultivation of rice in Japan. Chinese historical accounts of Japan from the third century mention sake as a popular beverage among the Japanese, particularly when mourning the dead. Sake’s long-standing association with religion and ceremonies is further confirmed by historical records of Japan compiled during the Heian period (794-1185). During the Heian period, sake was produced mainly for the Imperial Court, to be savored by the emperor or used in ceremonies, and not popularly consumed. Historical accounts also detail the transition from using saliva to ferment the rice to koji mold.
Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines started brewing their own sake in the 12th century, developing brewing methodologies still widely in use today. Temple and shrine breweries started using lactic acid fermentation to prevent microbial contamination, and upended the traditional applications of unpolished and polished rish in the brewing process. Progress in brewing techniques was enhanced by advances in woodworking technology that enabled construction of large vats, leading to mass production of sake. Collectively these advances led to the establishment of a sake industry separate from temples and shrines, and facilitated sake’s popular, non-religious consumption.
Sake became even more popular in the major cities of Edo, Kyoto and Osaka during the Edo period (1603-1868). Sake consumption in Edo reached annual levels of 54 litres per capita at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Recipes from the era suggest that inhabitants of Edo preferred heavy, sweet sake. Sake production spread around the country, resulting in greater regional variation, and was concentrated in the winter months when there is less risk of contamination, a tradition that continues to this day.
A typical Japanese brewery
After Japan ended its period of isolation, foreign scientists studied sake and were surprised by the advanced nature of pasteurization techniques. New laws ended the government monopoly on sake and thousands of new breweries were established, several of which still operate today. In the twentieth century, machines streamlined production, the practice of quality of appraisal was formalized and breweries began adding pure alcohol. The addition of pure alcohol was a consequence of rice shortages during WWII to increase volume, but most sake is still made this way. Today, fewer than 2000 sake breweries operate while Western style spirits gain a greater foothold in the Japanese market.
Types of Sake:
There are two main categories of sake: the four Tokutei Meishoshu (特定名所酒 Special Designation Sake) and Namazake (生鮭 unpasteurized sake).
The Tokutei Meishoshu:
Junmaishu (純米酒): sake made without added alcohol or sugar, can be translated as pure rice sake. Tends to be heavier, slightly more acidic and fuller than the other types.
Honjozoshu (本醸造): small quantity of distilled alcohol is added. Lighter and drier than Junmaishu, Honjozoshu is often enjoyed warm. Brewers emphasize flavor over aroma from the aging process.
Ginjoshu (吟醸酒): rice is highly milled, made with or without additional alcohol. The process of making Ginjoshu takes longer and is more labor intensive than Honjozoshu, allowing it to develop a more complex and delicate flavor.
Daiginjoshu (大吟醸酒): rice is milled even more than ginjo-shu, also can be made with or without alcohol. Like Ginjoshu but even more labor-intensive and made with more polished rice. Has a very refined flavor.
Other Types of Sake:
Kijoshu: sake made with sake as a base ingredient instead of water, tends to be quite dense and sweet
Genshu: undiluted sake with an alcohol content of 18-20% (as opposed to the 15-16% of diluted sake)
Namachozoshu: sake that is stored at low temperatures and only pasteurized once, allowing it to retain the flavor of unpasteurized sake
Namazake: unpasteurized sake (subcategories include junmainama and ginjonama), contains living yeast and enzymes
Nigorizake: white, cloudy unpasteurized sake that is strained once through a coarse cloth
Toketsushu: sake in sherbert-like form, a popular summer option