February 2018

Liquid Culture: Sake (Nihonshu)

Silhouette of Hands holding a Sake Cup and Bottle
Silhouette of Hands holding a Sake Cup and Bottle

For serious “foodies,” connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine, and even the most casual food enthusiast, a Japanese meal accompanied by the national drink of Japan, sake, is often considered mandatory. Much like the other components of a traditional Japanese meal, to consume sake is in a way akin to consuming Japanese culture. This naturally fermented spirit connects people to nature and to each other.

With an origin that dates back over 2,500 years, sake was, and still is, consumed to mourn the dead, for moon viewing (tsukimi) and during many other types of celebrations, such as, weddings, funerals, cherry blossom viewing (hanami), New Year’s (oshogatsu), and snow viewing (yukimi).

Red Sakazuki Sake Cup with Golden Plum Blossoms

Ceremonial Sakazuki Sake

If you would like a drink, you can visit a local izakaya (a Japanese pub) and find a decent selection of sake to drink. Drinking sake is easy enough – your server presents which brand or type of sake is available, you choose one (randomly or otherwise), and then take a drink after saying “kanpai” to your tablemates, or maybe to yourself if you are alone at a bar. Like any other adult beverage, sake is great if you are drinking solo but even better while hanging with friends. If you are in Japan, look for a ball of cedar, or “sugidama,” which signals that a brewery has a new batch of sake ready. Before you go, here are a few teasers to sip on:

The Japanese are known for their relationship with nature, and the sake-making process is no exception. The names and themes for sake brands usually refer directly to nature: plants, the seasons, trees, animals, and mountains. This is fitting considering the origin of its ingredients.

White sake tokuri and cups on a red tray with green maple leaves

Sake Presented on a Tray with Maple Leaves

When sake was first created centuries ago, the entire village would chew on rice and nuts, then spit (yes, spit) the mixture in a huge tub. The enzymes from the chewing initiated the fermentation process. This early sake is referred to as “kuchikami no sake” or “chewing mouth sake. Thankfully for us, the production process has changed significantly since then.

Today, the wide selection of different quality and flavor sake can be overwhelming. Different brands differentiate themselves by using rice from specific areas that is polished to a certain percentage and combined with water from a particular river to produce the precise flavor they are looking for. Both the type of yeast and the all-important “koji” also play crucial roles in the outcome of the finished product.

Wooden vats used to brew sake

Toko Sake Brewery Museum

©Daisuke Yatsui/JNTO

The technique required to make quality sake is time-consuming, to say the least, and every step is very important. Sake is usually made during the colder months, namely from October through March. First, quality rice, specially grown for making sake, called “sakamai,” is polished, washed, and soaked. Sakamai has less protein and more starch at its center than normal rice. The more the rice grains are polished the more refined the finished drink will be, accordingly, sake is classified by the percentage the rice is polished. For example, “futsu-shu,” or basic sake, is made with less polished rice than ultra-premium sake called “daiginjo.”

Afterwards, the rice is drained, steamed and cooled. Some of the steamed rice is used to make the “koji,” mold that turns the rice starch into glucose. After the koji is made, it is mixed with water and steamed rice. Yeast is added next, which ferments the mixture and produces the sake. Subtle variations in each component based on region and in the “sake-making” techniques at each brewery result in the myriad of flavors, strengths, and depths among the different sake brands.

Hopefully, this cursory explanation of the process will spark your inner sommelier and inspire you to seek out a more complete description of how sake is made. Lastly, October 1 is officially Sake Day, but there is no need to wait that long to have a cup of Japanese culture. Kanpai!

Related Issues

Would you like to receive the latest issues of Japan Info in your inbox?

Japan Info is a publication of the Consulate General of Japan in New York; however, the opinions and materials contained herein do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the Government of Japan.