Whether you’re on a journey to expand your cultural palette or you just want to try something new, learning more about Japanese sake is a great place to start.
Japan has a rich history filled with stories of pride and ceremony, and sake and the ceremony surrounding are often involved somewhere.
If you’re interested in giving sake a try but aren’t sure what it is, or where it came, from keep reading. We’re going to break down the colorful history of Japan’s best-known beverage and then tell you how to drink it in the traditional, Japanese way!
What is Sake?
Sake, pronounced “sa-keh,” is a wine made from fermented rice. During the process of fermentation, all of the starches in the rice change to sugar, and given more time that sugar turns into alcohol.
For the most part, Japanese sake contains about 15% alcohol. That is unless you’re talking about “genshu” sake, which contains around 19% alcohol content, as it isn’t diluted with water the way most sake is.
There are many different kinds of sake. In fact, all sake refers to in Japanese is alcohol. The Japanese call alcohol is made from fermented rice called “nihonshu.”
The traditional, low-alcohol sake is called amazake, while koshu is sake that has aged over time and becomes sweet. Nigorizake is what we in the west drink chilled at Japanese restaurants.
The different kinds of Japanese sake that we’ve listed here are just a few of the various types out there. The world of sake is vast!
The Origins of Japanese Sake
Now that you know a little more about what sake is, let’s take a look at where it comes from. It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where sake itself came from, as it’s been a staple of eastern life since before recorded history.
But we can trace the beginnings of Japanese sake to China.
Small and Unsavory Beginnings
In 500 B.C. China, the people living in Chinese villages would come together to produce sake in what could be the crudest way possible. They would all chew up rice and nuts and then spit the contents of their mouths into a giant tub. That tub would then be covered and stored somewhere to allow the ingredients, saliva included, to ferment.
Luckily enough, this isn’t how we make sake today.
Sometime during the Nara period, year 710 to 794, koji was discovered. Koji is an enzyme created by a mold that could be added to the rice to aid in fermentation. So people stopped spitting their chewed up rice out and letting it sit around to create their alcohol, thank goodness.
This is the sake production method that spread through Japan, eventually creating the sake we have today.
From Governments to Temples to Small Business Breweries
For a long time in Japan, the Japanese government had a monopoly on sake. But this didn’t hold out, as over time the temples and shrines started to brew sake on their own.
For hundreds of years, these temples and shrines were the number one source of sake distillery in Japan. This is the most probable cause behind sake being such a ceremonial drink.
But in the late 1800s, laws began to change around the distilling of sake and soon, anyone could do it. If a family had the means and resources to open their own sake brewery, they were allowed to give it a try.
This created a boom in the sake market, and over 30,000 breweries popped up in less than a year’s time.
This was a short-lived sake success, however. Soon, the taxes that the Japanese government imposed on the production of sake started to make the business all but unmanageable for everyone except the most successful companies.
However, some of the family-operated breweries that managed to make it out of this intense taxation period are still around today.
Present Day Sake Production
Over time, technology improved and so did our ability to produce high-quality sake. Breweries began to use steel tanks instead of wooden barrels when the question of sanitation began to arise.
Taxation on sake was still steep. The Japanese government banned the production of home-brewed sake because it wasn’t taxable, and today it is still illegal to brew without a license.
During WWII, rice was hard to come by. Brewers started to add alcohol and sugar to their fermentation process to bulk it up, and much of the sake produced today is made using this method even though the rice shortage has long been over.
Today in Japan, it’s much more popular to drink beer or wine. While in the U.S., sake is on the rise in popularity.
When to Drink Sake
Sake is a great drink to drink during appetizer, like raw fish. Traditionally, people don’t drink it with large meals. However, with the rise in western consumption, it’s more popular to drink it with big dinners.
You can learn more about how to pair sake with food here!
Despite the slow westernization of this traditional drink, it’s still considered a ceremonial or formal drink.
Serving Sake the Traditional Way
Sake is usually poured out of the container it was bought in and into a flask called a “tokkuri.” From there, you as the server would pour the sake carefully from the tokkuri into small cups called “ochoko.”
Sake is great at any temperature, depending on the way you like it or the season.
If you want to enjoy sake in a traditional way to honor its roots, you should start by pouring it properly.
Always use both hands on the tokkuri, to show respect. Never pour your own cup, even if you pour for everyone else at the table. And when you do get your ochoko of sake, cradle it delicately in one hand while resting the fingers of your other hand on the cup.
Wait for the toast, or “kanpai!” in Japanese, and then gently touch your ochoko with the others in the circle.
Expand Your Cultural Horizons With Japanese Sake
Japanese sake is a great way to attempt to expand your cultural horizons. When you start to partake in the ceremonial and traditional practices of the cultures around you, you learn to be a more learned and respectful individual.
Besides, sake tastes great and it’s a refreshing drink to have alongside a delicious Japanese meal!
If you’re interested in learning more about broadening your horizons, check out this post next!