This article uses the word "sake" as it is used in English, as the name for this specific Japanese beverage made from rice. However, in Japanese, the word sake (usually preceded by the honorific prefix o-) means alcoholic beverages in general and not exclusively this specific single beverage; instead, the word is used to distinguish it from other beverages. In English, the word "sake" always refers to Nihonshu.
Sake is also referred to in English as "Japanese rice wine," but the characterisation implied is not accurate. Wine is made from the single fermentation of plant juices (other than sparkling wine, which can be a double fermentation to create the carbonation). Sake is produced by multiple fermentation of rice, which is similar to the way beer is produced.
Regardless, the first sake was called kuchikami no sake, (Japanese for "chewing the mouth sake" or mouth chewed sake) and was made by people chewing rice, chestnuts, millet, acorn and spitting the mixture into a tub. The enzymes from the saliva allowed the starches to saccharify (convert to sugar). This sweet mixture was combined with freshly cooked grain and allowed to naturally ferment. This early form of sake was likely low in alcohol and consumed like porridge. This method was used by Native Americans; see cauim, and pulque. Chinese millet wine, xiǎo mǐ jǐu (小米酒), made the same way, is mentioned in inscriptions from the 14th century BC as being offered to the gods in religious rituals. Later, from approximately the 8th century BC, rice wine, mǐ jǐu (米酒) with a formula almost exactly like that of the later Japanese sake, became popular in China.
Centuries later, chewing was rendered unnecessary by the discovery of kōji-kin (麹菌 Aspergillus oryzae), a mold whose enzymes convert the starch in the rice to sugar, which is also used to make amazake, miso, and soy sauce. Rice inoculated with kōji-kin is called "kome-kōji" (米麹), or malt rice. A yeast mash, or shubo (酒母), is then added to convert the sugars to ethanol. This development can greatly increase sake's alcohol content (18%–25% by vol.); as starch is converted to sugar by kōji, sugars are converted to alcohol by yeast in one instantaneous process.
Kōji-kin was discovered most likely by accident. Kōji spores and yeast floating in the air would land in a soupy rice-water mixture left outside. The resulting fermentation would create a sake porridge not unlike the kuchikami no sake but without the hassle of needing a whole village to chew the rice. This porridge was probably not the best tasting, but the intoxication was enough to keep people interested in making it. Some of this mash would be kept as a starter for the next batch.
Experimentation and techniques from China sometime in the 7th century AD gave rise to higher quality sake. Sake eventually became popular enough for a brewing organization to be established at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, the then Capital of Japan. This resulted in full-time sake brewers, and these craftsmen paved the way for many more developments in technique. It was during the Heian Era (794-1185) that the development of the three step addition in the brewing process was developed (a technique to increase alcohol content and reduce chance of souring).
For the next 500 years the quality and techniques used in brewing sake steadily improved. The practice of using a starter mash or "moto" was adopted, for the purpose of cultivating the maximum possible amount of yeast cells before brewing . Brewers were also able to isolate kōji for the first time and, thus, were able to control with some consistency the saccharification (converting starch to sugar) of the rice.
Through observation and trial and error, a form of pasteurization was also developed. Batches of sake that began to sour due to bacteria during the summer months were poured out of their barrels into tanks and heated. However, the resulting pasteurized sake would then be returned to the bacteria infected barrels. Hence the sake would become more sour and, by the time fall came around, the sake would be unpalatable. The principles behind pasteurization (and better methods of storing sake) would not be understood until Louis Pasteur discovered them some 500 years later.
During the Meiji Restoration, laws were written that allowed anybody with the money and know-how to construct and operate their own sake breweries. Around 30,000 breweries sprang up around the country within a year. However, as the years went by, the government levied more and more taxes on the sake industry and slowly the number of breweries dwindled to 8,000.
Most of the breweries that grew and survived this period were set up by wealthy landowners. Landowners who grew rice crops would have rice left over at the end of the season and, rather than letting this stash of rice go to waste, would ship it to their breweries. The most successful of these family breweries still operate today.
During the 20th century, sake-brewing technology grew by leaps and bounds. The government opened the sake-brewing research institute in 1904 and, in 1907 the very first government-run sake tasting/competition was held. Yeast strains specifically selected for their brewing properties were isolated and enamel-coated steel tanks arrived. The government started hailing the use of enamel tanks as easy to clean, lasting forever, and being devoid of bacterial problems. (The government considered wooden barrels to be "unhygienic" because of the potential bacteria living in the wood.) Although these things are true, the government also wanted more tax money from breweries as the wood in wooden barrels sucks up a significant amount of sake (somewhere around 3%) that could have otherwise been taxed. This was the end of the wooden-barrel age of sake and the use of wooden barrels in brewing was completely eliminated.
In Japan, sake has long been taxed by the federal government. In 1898 this tax brought in about 55 million yen out of a total of about 120 million yen, so about 46% of the government's total direct tax income
During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–1905, the government banned the home brewing of sake. At the time, sake made up an astonishing 30% of Japan's tax revenue. Since home brewed sake is tax-free sake, the logic was that by banning the home brewing of sake, sales would go up, and more tax money would be collected. This was the end of "doburoku" (homebrewed) sake, and the law remains in effect today even though sake sales now make up only 2% of government income.
When World War II erupted, the sake-brewing industry was dealt a hefty blow as the government clamped down on the use of rice for brewing. Most of the rice grown during this time was used for the war effort, and this, in conjunction with many other problems, was the end for thousands of breweries all over Japan.
Previously, it had been discovered that small amounts of alcohol could be added to sake to improve aroma and texture. But by government decree, pure alcohol and glucose were added to small quantities of rice mash, increasing the yield by as much as four times. 95% of today's sake is made using this technique, left over from the war years. There were even a few breweries that were able to produce "sake" that contained no rice at all. Naturally, the quality of sake during this time suffered greatly.
After the war, breweries slowly began to recover, and the quality of sake gradually went up. However, new players on the scene — beer, wine, and spirits — became very popular in Japan, and in the 1960s beer consumption surpassed sake for the first time. Sake consumption continued to go down while, in contrast, the quality of sake steadily improved.
Today, sake has become a world beverage with a few breweries springing up in China, Southeast Asia, South America, North America, and Australia. More breweries are also turning to older methods of production.
While the rest of the world may be drinking more sake and the quality of sake has been increasing, it is not clear sailing for the sake industry. In Japan, the sale of sake is still declining and it is uncertain if the exportation of sake to other countries can save Japanese breweries. There are around 1,500 breweries in Japan now, whereas there were about 2,500 in 1988.
Sake is produced by the multiple parallel fermentation of polished rice. The process of milling removes the protein and oils from the exterior of the rice grain, leaving behind starch. A more thorough milling leads to fewer congeners and generally a more desirable product. Multiple fermentation means that there are multiple steps in the fermentation process — the starch is converted to sugar by enzyme action, and then the sugar is converted to alcohol by yeast. This is typical of beverages created from starchy sources, such as beers.
The brewing process starts with the mixing and kneading together of steamed rice, called kōji, with a cultivated mold and water. The brewing process lasts about six weeks.
Sake brewing differs from beer brewing in two significant ways. In sake brewing, enzymes for the starch conversion come from the action of a mold called aspergillus oryzae, but in beer brewing the enzymes come from the malt itself. In sake brewing, the multiple processes of fermentation occur simultaneously in the same step, while in beer these processes occur in different, serial steps.
After fermentation, the product is heavily clouded with grain solids and is generally filtered, except in the case of nigori sake. Generally, the product is not aged because consumers prefer the flavor of the fresh product, which degrades quickly in the presence of light, air, and heat. A few varieties of aged sake serve a niche market, however, and can be purchased for a reasonable price if one knows of whom and where to inquire.
In Japanese, a sake brewery is called a kura (蔵, "warehouse").
By varying the brewing process, many different types of sake can be created. Categorized by brewing method, there are several types of sake:
By creating a starter-culture of micro-organisms, a higher-quality brew is possible. The starter-culture, called "moto" (酛) is stored at 5-10°C, allowing the lactic acid micro-organisms to become dominant in the culture. Lactic acid is important to flavor and preventing un-wanted infections. Subsequently, the rice, kōji, and water are added at three separate stages. The mixture is called moromi (醪 or 諸味), and grows the mass by three additions. By initiating a brew with a starter-culture, the subsequent batches to moromi also increase the alcohol levels.
There are two basic types of sake: futsū-shu (普通酒), "normal sake"; and tokutei meishōshu (特定名称酒) "special designation sake". Futsū-shu does not qualify for any levels of special designation. It is the equivalent of table wine and is over 75% of all sake produced. On the other hand, the tokutei meishōshu or "special designation sake" is distinguished by the degree to which the rice is polished and the added percentage of jōzō alcohol or absence of such additives.
There are four types of tokutei meishōshu (actually six, due to mixing and matching the junmai and ginjō varieties).
The term junmai can be added in front of either ginjō or daiginjō if no alcohol is added to result in either junmai ginjō or junmai daiginjō. However, distilled alcohol often is added in small amounts to ginjō and daiginjō to heighten the aroma, not to increase volume, so a junmai daiginjō without added alcohol is not necessarily a better product than daiginjō. In fact, most brews that win the gold medals at the Hiroshima Kanpyōkai (one of the most prestigious judging events) cannot be called junmai due to the small amounts of alcohol added.
In addition, there are some other terms commonly used to describe sake:
Some other terms commonly used in connection with sake:
In Japan sake is served cold, warm or hot, depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the sake and the season. Sake is one of the few alcoholic beverages that is regularly consumed hot. Typically, hot sake is consumed in winter and cold sake is consumed in summer. As heating serves to mask the undesirable flavors of lower-quality sake, it is said that the practice became popular during World War II to mask the rough flavor of low-quality sake resulting from scarcity of quality ingredients.
Professional sake tasters prefer room temperature (20°C/68°F), and chilled sake (10°C/50°F) is growing in popularity. Some bottles advise 105F serving temperture. James Bond's preferred temperature is 98.4°F.
Sake is served in shallow cups, called choko. Usually sake is poured into the choko from ceramic flasks called tokkuri. Other, more ceremonial cups, used most commonly at weddings and other special occasions, are called sakazuki. Drinking from someone else's sake cup is considered a sign of friendship, or to honour someone of lower status. The influx of premium sakes has inspired Riedel, the Austrian wine glass company, to create a footed glass specifically for premium sakes such as ginjō and daiginjō.
One item used by some traditional sake drinkers is a masu, a box traditionally made of Japanese cypress. In some of the more traditional Japanese restaurants, as a show of generosity, the server may put a glass inside the masu (or put the masu inside a saucer) and pour until a large amount of sake overflows and fills this secondary container.
After opening the bottle of sake, it is best consumed within 2 or 3 hours. It is possible to store in the refrigerator, but it is recommended to finish the sake within 2 days. This is because once premium sake is opened, it begins to oxidize which affects the taste. If the sake is kept in the refrigerator for more than 3 days, it will lose its "best" flavor. However, this does not mean it should be disposed of if not consumed. Generally, sake can keep very well and still taste just fine after weeks in the fridge. How long a sake will remain drinkable depends on the actual product itself, and whether it is sealed with a wine vacuum top.
Sake is often consumed as part of Shinto purification rituals (compare with the use of grape wine in the Christian Eucharist). During World War II, Kamikaze pilots drank sake prior to carrying out their missions. Today barrels of sake are broken open (Kagami biraki) during Shinto festivals, weddings, and ceremonies or following sports victories: this sake (called iwai-zake, literally "celebration sake") is served freely to all to spread good fortune. Sake is also served during the light meal eaten during some tea ceremonies.
In the New Year Japanese people drink a special sake called toso. Toso is a sort of iwai-zake. It is made by soaking tososan, a Chinese powder medicine, overnight in sake. Even children sip a portion. In some regions the first sipping of toso is taken in order of age from younger to older. History dates back to the ninth century. This sake was introduced under emperor Saga.
Kagami biraki is the ritual breaking open of a new sake barrel with a wooden mallet, performed at weddings, business openings, New Years, and other special events.