Sake is known across the world as a traditional Japanese alcoholic spirit or drink. Many people outside of Japan think that this drink is known as sake, however, in Japan, what we may call sake is named Nihonshu, Japanese liquor. In Japan sake can refer to any alcoholic drink. So if you visit Japan and want to try ‘sake’ then ask for Nihonshu.
When the Japanese first started brewing sake is not known. In Asia, the production of alcoholic beverages actually pre-dates written history! The first written accounts of alcohol consumption in Japan date back to the 3rd century, which shows a rich history of making alcoholic drinks. The first mention of nihoshu, or sake, was found in a text written in 712AD. When nihonshu was first produced is said to have been during the Nara period of feudal Japan, from 710-794. At this time, nihonshu was used mainly for religious ceremonies and festivals held in the court or palaces. There are also mentions of nihonshu being used in drinking games too! Most nihonshu was produced by the rulers of Japan, however this changed when shrines and temples began their own production, and were soon the primary producers of alcohol. Over the years, especially during the Meiji period, the brewing of alcohol was widespread as there were no laws against doing so. However once taxation was brought in against alcohol, the number of people doing it decreased. It was the wealthy that continued production by using the rice harvest waste to produce alcohol in their own breweries. For these many years alcohol was brewed in wood barrels until the government suggested the use of enamel to save on evaporation. Sadly, since World War II, the production of nihonshu and sake in Japan has been declining, although the quality has been increasing. Now much nihonshu and sake are brewed outside of Japan with great acclaim.
One thing that surprises people is how sake or nihonshu is produced, with many people believing it is a rice wine. However sake or nihonshu is produced with similar methods to beer in how it is brewed. The two main starter ingredients for nihonshu are sake-rice and pure water. The quality of these two ingredients plays a big part in the overall quality of the nihonshu produced. The sake-rice is unlike the rice usually eaten, as it is actually not so suitable to eat. The centre of the sake-rice contains a grain of pure starch, needed for the brewing process. To start off, the rice is milled, taking the outer layers of the rice grain away and leaving the starch. The rice is then washed to remove any rice power and then soaked. The next step involves high pressure steaming before everything is being cooled. The next step involves the third ingredient of nihonshu, koji-kin, a specific type of mould. After this has been mixed with the rice for several days, a mixture of yeast and water is added. Over several more days amounts of rice, koji and water are added to the mixture. This mix is then fermented for 2-3 weeks at specific temperatures depending on the quality of the nihonshu being produced. Once fermented, the mix is strained or filtered, depending on the process of different breweries. For example, a cloudy sake is not filtered meaning that rice is left in the beverage to be consumed. Once this has all been completed the nihonshu mix is then matured for up to a year to mellow the flavour. Modern technology means that some of the aspects of nihonshu production have been automated, such as the milling process. Although, there are some brewers who stick to more traditional methods.
Nihonshu can be drunk in three different ways, cold, room temperature or hot. Traditionally, high quality nihonshu is drunk cold, generally in the summer. This helps preserve the flavour of the nihonshu and also to keep the drinker cool. Room temperature sake is often sold in bars and clubs, although is not the best way to savour all types of nihonshu. Nihonshu can also be heated to around 50* in the winter to be enjoyed on cold days. High quality varieties are not heated as it is detrimental to the flavour. There are many different types and categories of nihonshu, some quite green, some cloudy or amber and some clear. It can be fun trying all the types of nihonshu to find the one you like, especially as the high-quality stuff is said to not give a hangover!
While the popularity of nihonshu is declining in Japan it is certainly growing elsewhere. There are now sake or nihonshu breweries across the globe in such places as China, Australia and America. As non-Japanese strains of rice are used abroad, the process has to be tweaked for each region in order to produce quality sake. The increase in international notice of Japanese cuisine has helped with the rise of sake, as its flavour compliments washoku. Foreign sake is even becoming experimental with flavours added to suit the palate of the worldwide audience.
Sake, what exactly is it?