Sake, Japan’s national beverage, is a drink made from fermented rice. While it is often called a wine, it is technically not one, for real wines are made from fruit like grapes. The Japanese also call the drink nihonshu, which simply means “Japanese liquor”. They usually drink it during formal ceremonies or to celebrate national holidays and other special occasions.
The Japanese typically drink nihonshu from a small porcelain cup called a sakazuki, and they store it in a tall bottle called a tokkuri.
Sake, an historic drink
The exact origins of nihonshu are unclear, for they predate written history. Ironically, the first descriptions of a fermented rice beverage come from China. Around 500 BC, villagers would chew rice and nuts and then spit the results in a large communal tub. They would set the tub aside and let the contents ferment.
Sometime later, the Chinese discovered a fungus called koji that is a strain of Aspergillus oryzae and secretes enzymes used in fermentation. They developed fermentation techniques using koji that reached Japan by the Nara period (710 – 794 CE) – and are still used today.
The government originally had a monopoly on nihonshu production. In the 10th century, however, shrines and temples began brewing their own nihonshu, and they eventually became the chief producers of the drink. As a result, nihonshu became associated with important ceremonies by the 1300s.
How to make Sake?
Nihonshu is made from highly polished rice, yeast, water, and koji.
The brewers use rice that has been polished or milled to remove the outer layers, which contain unpleasant-tasting proteins. They carefully wash and soak the rice to prepare it for steaming. After steaming the rice, the brewers let it cool and then mix koji spores into it.
Two days later, the brewers put water and yeast in a fermentation tank and then add the steamed rice. It takes four days to fill the tank. The brewers carefully monitor the process to ensure the rice is fermenting consistently and properly. They will then force the resulting liquid through a press to remove any particles. The brewers will bottle the nihonshu and let it age.
They will let the finer wines age for at least a year. Most varieties have an alcohol content between 15 to 20 percent, but genshu, which is particularly strong, may have an alcohol content of over 20 percent.
Where to taste Sake in Japan?
Many bars and restaurants serve nihonshu. Some breweries offer tours that include rice wine tastings.
Sudo Honke is the oldest brewery in Japan that still exists. It was established in 1141 and has been operated by the same family since that time. It is located in Obara. The brewery offers tours that last about 60 to 90 minutes and include wine tastings. The tours take place between 10 am and 3 pm and visitors need to make reservations.
Akaoni 39 is a popular bar in Tokyo’s Sangenjaya neighborhood. It offers over 100 kinds of nihonshu, including rare and vintage varieties from all over the country. Its drinks include daiginjo, a type of nihonshu made by polishing rice grains to at least half their weight. Daiginjo is considered a premium drink.
Visitors to the town Takayama may enjoy a wine tasting tour, during which they may visit up to seven breweries. A brewery worker will serve as a guide and explain how the different varieties of nihonshu are made. The tour will take about two hours.
The town Kobe is home to the Nada district, which is considered the best region for producing nihonshu. It is also home to a wine tasting tour. A local guide will lead visitors to area breweries where they may sample traditional and experimental drinks.