For the Japanese, the traditional rice beverage means the same that wine does for French cuisine. Sake can add taste to prepared dishes, emphasise it while eating, balance intensive aromas or purify taste buds before next bite. Escaping the Western classifications, “the Samurai’s beverage” is another proof of the uniqueness of the Japanese culture.

Sake – simply alcohol

Although the Westerners usually unequivocally associate the name sake with Japanese rice alcohol (often incorrectly called vodka), for the Japanese the word simply means alcoholic beverage. Each and every one. In the Cherry Blossom Land sake is both the traditional spirit, produced of rice grains, and popular beer, wine or even champagne or whisky. The Japanese call the world-wide known specialty nihon-shu. The shu element is written in the same way as sake (酒), and nihon (日本) means “Japanese”. Nihon-shu is then the “Japanese alcohol”.

Japanese vodka, wine or beer – what is sake?

Japanese name is not the only imprecision related to the presence of sake in our Western awareness. More often than not, Poles use the name “rice vodka”. Those who are more conscious call it “rice wine”, due to the low alcohol content (approx. 17%) in the Japanese beverage. As it turns out, they couldn’t be more wrong either. Although the rice used to make sake is fermented (like wine), the yeast is also added to it during production. Due to its presence and the way of treatment, the process of manufacturing sake should rather be compared to… brewing beer. It doesn’t mean that the Japanese spirit can be unequivocally classified as beer. If compared to the golden beverage, sake contains more amino acids and peptides, and, above all, is definitely stronger. In order to describe nihon-shu most accurately, it is safest to stick to the term “traditional Japanese alcohol produced of rice”.

How does sake taste and how many alcohol does it contain?

The sake looks a bit like white wine. Depending on the type, it may be completely colourless or slightly yellowish and contain between 13 and 17% alcohol. Although the taste of sake is often described as sweet, careful gourmets can also taste its subtle, difficult to describe umami note. The intensity of the fifth flavour and the degree of acidity vary from one variety of the spirit to another. Ginjo – one of the kinds of sake – has also additional fruit flavour. What’s interesting, no fruit or artificial flavours are added to ginjo. As a result of the fermentation of yeast in appropriate conditions, during the production process aromatic esters are produced, similar to those which give the fruit its sweet aroma.

Samurai’s alcohol – the history of sake

Looking back for the beginnings of the history of sake, one should go back in time for about 2500 years, when rice became one of the dominantly cultivated plants in Japan. The first written sources, in which rice alcohol is mentioned, come from the third century A.D. and indicate, among others, that the Japanese met at sake to reminisce and mourn the souls of the dead.

One of the 10th-century books describes the details concerning the methods of producing Japanese alcohol at that time. It was mainly consumed at the imperial court and used during official ceremonies. The technique of manufacturing sake was most developed in the period from the 12th to the 15th century, when it was taken care of by Buddhist and Shintoist priests. The sake was frequently used by Japanese warriors, thus its customary term – “samurai’s alcohol”. The beverage became so popular that at the beginning of the 18th century its annual production reached 38 000 litres. This means that during the Edo period, the average Japanese citizen consumed an average of 54 litres of sake per year!

When the Western world became interested in Japan in the middle of the 19th century, sake became the subject of numerous research and scientific analyses. In their reports, European researchers pointed out, among others, the extraordinary fact that for centuries the Japanese had been using the pasteurisation methods, which the French chemist, Louis Pasteur, developed only in the 1860s.

The technique of the production of sake evolved with the development of science, industry and socio-cultural changes. At the beginning of the 20th century, the first institutions addressing the control of the quality of rice spirits were established, and in 1911 the first competition for its producers took place.

How is sake produced?

Although there still exist traditional sake factories in Japan, its production on an industrial scale was taken over by machines long time ago. The whole process begins with polishing the rice in special equipment. The aim is to remove from the grains their top layer, which contains large amounts of fats, minerals and proteins that disrupt the taste of alcohol. Depending on the type of sake one wants to obtain, the degree of polishing rice should range from 30 to more than 50%. Next, the rice is rinsed thoroughly and soaked until it absorbs water the mass of which equals 30% of its own mass. After an hour of steaming the grains are cooled and moved to special rooms lined with wood. Constant air humidity and temperature in the rooms create the conditions which are perfect for the cultivation of mould (kōjikin), the spores of which are sprinkled on moist rice. The grains are mixed and re-arranged from time to time to let the mould spread evenly.

After three days the cultivated rice (kōji) is transferred to a special vat together with the yeast starter called shubo (酒母, which means “sake mother”) and water. In the container, the processes of saccharification and fermentation takes place; depending on the type of sake it may take from 20 to 40 days. (According to historical sources, before the method was developed, it was young girls who had helped in the production process by… chewing the steamed rice before the fermentation. Under the influence of salivary amylase the starch contained in the grains could be transformed into sugar). Afterwards, the liquid alcohol is separated from the rice slurry. The mass is placed in canvas sacks, which are pressed by the press. The final stages of the production process consist in filtration, pasteurisation and ageing of the ready alcohol.

Types of sake – what sake should you buy in Japan?

Together with the industrial development and increased production and export of sake, the traditional brewing methods were modified and simplified – which was not always beneficial for the quality of the alcohol. That is why the Japanese government has created a document defining conditions which are to be met by the manufacturers of the rice spirit. Sake should be obtained from rice, koji and water. It is admissible to add neutral alcohol, sugars and a few other ingredients. Apart from the technical details related to the production of sake, the document recognises its basic kinds.

Ginjo, obtained from grains polished in more than 40%, features pleasant, fruit aroma and is relatively light. Daiginjo, produced from even finer polished rice, is characterised by stronger and more sophisticated taste. Junmai and tokubetsu junmai are the acid varieties of sake in which umami taste is very distinctive. In junmai ginjo this taste is replaced by fruity hints of ginjo-ka, which play the first fiddle in this variety. Junami daiginjo is considered to be sake of the highest quality, featuring the super excellent composition of tastes and flavours. The last type of sake approved by the governmental document is honjozo, with moderate acidity and umami intensity. The honjozo, when tasted alone, does not have a very attractive taste, but it excellently emphasises and brings out the taste of the dishes to which it is served.

The spirit manufactured in accordance with the traditional requirements of sake constitute merely approximately 30% of the total Japanese production. The remaining 70% of products available on the market are the so-called futsu-shu – “ordinary” sake of lower quality. Rise from which the futsu-shu is obtained is polished in as much as 70% and more alcohol is added during the manufacturing,

Drinking culture in Japan – how should we drink and serve sake?

And now, the crucial issue – how should we serve sake in order to bring out the fullness of its noble taste? In accordance with the Japanese tradition, during important ceremonies and banquets sake is drunk from earthen or porcelain sakazuki cups resembling bowls with a diameter of about 5-8 cm. During traditional Japanese wedding receptions, the bride and groom still need to drink sake from one shared decorative sakazuki. Its diameter can equal as much as 30 cm.

Sake can be served in two ways – cold or slightly heated. Nowadays, special glasses with a capacity of 110 or 60 ml are recommended for drinking chilled sake (at a temperature lower than the ambient temperature). It is also acceptable to use Bordeaux-type wine glasses. Their shape (bulbous, slightly elongated and slightly narrowed upwards) makes it possible for the alcohol aromas to spread properly. To serve sake cold (approx. 8-10°C) the slightly fruity ginjo, which aroma is not so noticeable when heated, is perfect.

The most traditional form of serving sake, however, is atsukan. To emphasize the taste of the spirit, it is heated to approx. 42-45°C. Special pots with a capacity of 150-300 ml, made of porcelain, copper or tin, are used to serve warm sake. Takkuri or chirori filled with alcohol are placed in hot water, which heats the contents of the ‘glasses’. Sake is ready for consumption after 2-3 minutes. Being careful and keeping an eye on the temperature of the liquid, one can also heat sake in an oven or a microwave oven.

Less acidic – in comparison to wine – and a bit tart taste of sake blends perfectly with many dishes of Japanese and not only cuisine. It is perfect when accompanying fresh fish, dishes with soy sauce, thick miso soups and even cheese. Water is also often served with sake to help clean the taste buds and soothe the body’s reaction to alcohol. Bottles with sake should be stored in cool and shaded places. Sunlight and high temperatures may affect the taste of the beverage.

Although, the residents of the Cherry Blossom Land are equally keen on opting for light, refreshing beer, sake still attracts them with its original taste. In Japan there are still small plants producing local sake varieties in line with the methods that have been tried and tested for centuries. It is worth to include them in your travel plans in order to taste the famous “samurai’s drink” and feel the atmosphere of traditional Japanese production.

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