Sake also referred to as Japanese rice wine is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the bran.
The old adage is, “sake is brewed like a beer but drunk like a wine”.
The alcohol content differs between sake, wine, and beer – while most beer contains 3–9% ABV, wine generally contains 9–16% ABV, and sake contains 15–22% ABV.
Sake is light in color and has a sweet flavour.
In Japan, where it is the national beverage, sake is served with special ceremony.
Sake is typically poured from a tall bottle called a tokkuri and drunk from a sakazuki, a small porcelain cup.
It is served chilled, at room temperature, or heated, depending on the preference of the drinker, the characteristics of the sake, and the season. Typically, hot sake is a winter drink, and high-grade sake is not usually drunk hot, because the flavors and aromas may be lost.
The origin of sake is unclear. The manufacture of sake began sometime after the introduction of wet rice cultivation in Japan in the 3rd century BC.
The first written record referring to sake dates from the 3rd century AD, and the first reference to its manufacture dates from the 8th century.
In ancient Japan sake was produced primarily by the imperial court and by large temples and shrines, but from the early 12th century the general population began to manufacture it.
By the early 16th century the modern process for making sake had been nearly perfected.
During the Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912), new laws permitted anyone with the resources and ability to brew sake to open their own brewery. Within a year, over 30,000 new breweries opened in Japan, but
due to continuously increasing taxation on sake producers, over two-thirds were forced to shut down. Several of the family-owned and operated breweries that survived this period still exist today.
When World War II brought rice shortages, the sake-brewing industry was hampered as the government discouraged the use of rice for brewing. After the war, breweries slowly began to recover, and the quality of sake gradually improved.
However, new alcoholic beverages such as 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, but in contrast, the quality of sake steadily improved.
Today, the quality of sake is the highest it has ever been, and sake has become a world-renowned beverage with a few breweries springing up in China, Southeast Asia, South America, North America and Australia. More breweries are also experimenting with older methods of production.
While the rest of the world may be drinking more sake and the quality of sake has been increasing, in Japan sales of sake are still declining and it is uncertain if the exportation of sake to other countries can save Japanese breweries.
There are currently around 1,500 breweries in Japan.
The oldest known sake brewery is from the 15th century near an area that was owned by Tenryū-ji, in Ukyō-ku, Kyoto.
Tōji is the job title of the sake brewer, named after Du Kang. It is a highly respected job in the Japanese society, with tōji being regarded like musicians or painters. The title of tōji was historically passed from father to son. Today new tōji are either veteran brewery workers or are trained at universities.
In Japanese, the character sake 酒 – can refer to any alcoholic drink, while the beverage called “sake” in English is usually termed nihonshu (日本酒 – meaning ‘Japanese wine’).
The rice used for brewing sake is called saka mai (sake rice), or officially shuzō kōtekimai (sake-brewing suitable rice). There are at least 80 types of sake rice in Japan.
There are two basic types of sake: Futsū-shu (ordinary sake) and Tokutei meishō-shu (special-designation sake). Futsū-shu is the equivalent of table wine and accounts for the majority of sake produced. Tokutei meishō-shu refers to premium sake distinguished by the degree to which the
rice has been polished and the added percentage of brewer’s alcohol or the absence of such additives. There are eight varieties of special-designation sake.
At the New Year many Japanese people drink a special sake called toso. Toso is a sort of celebration sake made by soaking tososan, a Chinese powdered medicine, overnight in sake. Even children sip a portion. In some regions, the first sips of toso are taken in order of age, from the youngest to the
October 1 is the official “Sake Day” of Japan. It is also called “World Sake Day”. It was designated by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association in 1978.