Seabourn Club Herald - - GRAPES&GRAINS - By Stephen Grasso

SAKE IS THE NA­TIONAL BEV­ER­AGE OF JA­PAN, cre­ated from the fer­men­ta­tion of rice that has been milled or pol­ished to re­move the bran. Of­ten de­scribed as a rice wine, its brew­ing process more closely re­sem­bles that of beer. Dur­ing wine pro­duc­tion, the sugar nat­u­rally present in grapes is fer­mented into al­co­hol — whereas to cre­ate sake, the starch nat­u­rally present in rice is first con­verted into sug­ars and then into al­co­hol. It dif­fers from beer in that this con­ver­sion process oc­curs si­mul­ta­ne­ously rather than in two sep­a­rate stages, and the al­co­hol con­tent of undi­luted sake is typ­i­cally much higher than beer, at around 18 to 20 per­cent.

The des­ig­na­tion “sake,” in the Ja­panese lan­guage, can be used to re­fer to any al­co­holic drink; whereas what we know as sake in the English lan­guage is more prop­erly termed ni­hon­shu in Ja­panese.


There are prop­erly two dif­fer­ent types of sake. Futsu-¯shu means "or­di­nary sake," and is the ba­sic ta­ble-wine ver­sion, whereas tokutei meish¯o-shu de­scribes a pre­mium sake that has been mod­i­fied dur­ing its fer­men­ta­tion process by fac­tors such as more thor­ough milling or the ad­di­tion of fur­ther in­gre­di­ents such as brewer’s al­co­hol. This cat­e­gory of pre­mium sake can be fur­ther sub­di­vided into sev­eral com­mon va­ri­eties.

Jun­mai is the pure sake made of only wa­ter, ko¯ji mold, yeast and rice that has had 30 per­cent of each grain milled away in the polishing process. It has a full, rich body, in­tense fla­vor and lit­tle fra­grance, and is gen­er­ally served hot.

Hon­jozo is a sake with the same con­sis­tency as jun­mai, with the ex­cep­tion that a por­tion of dis­tilled brewer’s al­co­hol is added dur­ing its pro­duc­tion. This serves to smooth out the fla­vor and in­crease the fra­grance of the sake. It is typ­i­cally served warm at room or body tem­per­a­ture.

Ginjo sake has a lighter and more com­plex fla­vor, which is cre­ated by the out­er­most parts of the rice ker­nel be­ing milled away by 40 per­cent rather than 30 per­cent. Lower fer­men­ta­tion tem­per­a­ture, spe­cial yeast va­ri­eties and other tech­niques also shape its del­i­cate, fra­grant taste. It is gen­er­ally served chilled to bet­ter bring out its fla­vor.

Daig­injo sake is the high-end des­ig­na­tion, where as much as 50 to 65 per­cent of the rice ker­nel is milled away, re­sult­ing in a more full-bod­ied and fra­grant va­ri­ety with a brief af­ter­taste. Like ginjo, it’s gen­er­ally served chilled.

Other spe­cial­ist forms of sake in­clude nig­ori sake, a coarsely fil­tered va­ri­ety cre­ated when the un­fer­mented por­tion of the rice is left in the bot­tle, which re­sults in a cloudy white col­oration. Nama sake is a va­ri­ety that hasn't been pas­teur­ized, which re­sults in a dis­tinc­tive fresh fla­vor. Taru is a sake that has been stored in cedar tanks af­ter brew­ing to ac­cent its fla­vor, whereas koshu is a sake that has been aged for longer than a typ­i­cal fer­men­ta­tion cy­cle, which makes a drink that’s heavy, honey-col­ored and of­ten com­pletely dif­fer­ent from other forms of sake.

There is also ki­joshu, or dessert sake, cre­ated sim­i­lar to port or sherry by adding more sake to the brew­ing stages in place of wa­ter. Lastly, gen­shu is an undi­luted sake, cre­ated when the typ­i­cal amount of wa­ter used dur­ing the fer­men­ta­tion process is omit­ted en­tirely to cre­ate a stronger end re­sult.


The ori­gins of sake in Ja­pan pre­date recorded history, with the ear­li­est ref­er­ences to the Ja­panese use of al­co­hol recorded in the Book of Wei, a 3rd-cen­tury Chi­nese text. The likely ori­gin of true sake, how­ever, has been placed by schol­ars in the Nara pe­riod of 710 to 794, where the drink took on the char­ac­ter­is­tics that we know it by to­day.

Sake pro­duc­tion was con­trolled by the gov­ern­ment un­til the 10th cen­tury, when tem­ples and shrines be­gan to brew their own sakes and be­came the new cen­ters of sake pro­duc­tion for the next 500 years. The Ta­mon-in Di­ary text, writ­ten by the ab­bots of

the Ta­mon-in tem­ple from 1478 to 1618, de­scribes the rec­og­niz­able process of fer­men­ta­tion and pas­teur­iza­tion that still char­ac­ter­izes sake pro­duc­tion to­day.

The drink is tra­di­tion­ally served in small cups called choko. The sake is poured into the choko from a heated ce­ramic flask called a tokkuri, and the small size of the cups pre­vents the sake from get­ting cold af­ter pour­ing. There are nu­mer­ous pro­to­cols and cer­e­mo­nial forms re­lated to the pour­ing and con­sum­ing of sake. For in­stance, a per­son should never pour their own drink, but al­low other mem­bers of their party to pour for them. Many of these rules around sake have been re­laxed in more mod­ern times, but are still ob­served on for­mal oc­ca­sions such as spe­cial events or at busi­ness meals.

An­other tra­di­tional ves­sel is the masu, a wooden box tra­di­tion­ally used for mea­sur­ing rice, which holds ex­actly 180mL (about 6 ounces) — the tra­di­tional serv­ing amount for sake. The masu is of­ten placed on a saucer and then filled to over­flow­ing as a show of gen­eros­ity. For spe­cial events such as wed­dings or at the new year, cer­e­mo­nial saucer-like cups known as sakazuki are also used for serv­ing sake.

Sake has var­i­ous rit­ual uses within Shinto, the tra­di­tional eth­nic re­li­gion of Ja­pan, which is based around pro­pi­ti­at­ing the an­ces­tors and mak­ing of­fer­ings to land­scape spir­its known as kami. Sake is con­sumed dur­ing Shinto pu­rifi­ca­tion rit­u­als, or is served as an of­fer­ing to the kami be­fore it is con­sumed by the wor­ship­per. These of­fer­ings of sake are known as omiki or miki, and are be­lieved to fa­cil­i­tate com­mu­nion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the


spir­its and an­ces­tors. Dur­ing World War II, the Ja­panese kamikaze pi­lots would con­sume sake in a rit­ual con­text be­fore em­bark­ing on their one-way mis­sion.

A rit­ual known as kagami bi­raki in­volves break­ing open a wooden cask of sake with a mal­let to cel­e­brate wed­dings, store open­ings, sports or elec­tion vic­to­ries or Shinto fes­ti­vals. The sake within is des­ig­nated iwai-zake, or “cel­e­bra­tion sake,” and is served freely to all to pro­mote good for­tune. An­other rit­ual sake, tra­di­tion­ally served on New Year’s, is toso, made by soak­ing a Chi­nese pow­dered medicine called tososan in the bev­er­age overnight.

To­day, there are sake brew­eries lo­cated as far from Ja­pan as the Amer­i­cas and Aus­tralia. More pro­duc­ers are look­ing into older, more tra­di­tional brew­ing meth­ods, and the mar­ket for higher-qual­ity sake has ex­panded. Clearly, sake, the drink of Ja­pan, is loved through­out the world.

Saki Bar, Osaka

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