“Sake”, which is pronounced with an ‘a’ as in father and an ‘e’ as in egg, is both a generic term for alcohol and for wine made from rice. The wine was the main alcoholic beverage in Japan until Western wines, beer and distilled liquor were introduced mainly in the 19th century. The alternative to sake before Western alcohol was “shochu”, which is brewed from molasses (top grade) or a variety of grains or potatoes (second grade) and originated in Okinawa, a sugar growing area, in the 16th century.
Sake was probably brewed very soon after rice cultivation was introduced to Japan about two thousand years ago. By the 8th century, mention is made of it being manufactured for general sale, rather than brewed for personal use. The liquid was drunk mainly by the imperial court and religious figures, but gradually spread to a wider audience. By the 14th century, sake was being marketed and traded as a bulk commodity and governments taxed it because its consumption, and the resulting revenues, tended to grow steadily.
Sake is brewed throughout Japan although the traditional center of brewing is in Nada, now a suburb in Kobe, the second largest port city in Japan. There are several large, national brewers and some 3,000 local brewers, many of which are well-known and much sought after for their special wines. Many of the small brewers proudly display the traditional insignia of their trade: a large ball made of cryptomeria leaves. The brewing process sees rice, malted rice and water blended to form a yeast mixture; additional quantities of each are added as the yeast grows, yielding alcohol as a by-product. After about 20 days, the liquid is separated from the solid matter. It is further refined, blended, and usually pasteurized before being bottled. The solid matter is then used in the making of other food products, especially pickles which are a constant companion to any Japanese-style meal. Most sake is about 16% alcohol (32 proof) and is consumed within a year of production. Because it is usually pasteurized, it does not improve with aging.
Sake was originally a cloudy liquid. A popular story from days gone by has it that inthe 1660s an unhappy employee of the Konoike family, an Osaka merchant and sake brewing family, threw some ashes into a fermentation vat. Instead of destroying the sake, the ashes settled out the cloudy particles and the Konoike enterprise prospered. In any case, the drink has been a clear liquid now for over three centuries.
Rice wine is drunk, of course, with a meal; one of the customs is that rice is not served until the diners stop drinking sake as it is deemed redundant to drink and eat rice at the same time. It is usually warmed in small pottery containers to about 120 Fahrenheit (50 degrees Centigrade) before drinking. In the summer, a variety of wine which is served cold or on ice is prepared. Cold sake is usually served in square wooden cups so that the smell of the fresh wood mixes with the smell and taste of the wine.
Sake is also, needless to say, consumed apart from meals. There is a long tradition of ‘moon viewing’ or ‘poetry’ parties which did pay attention to those activities but also saw the bottom of many a bottle of sake too. A sweetened type of sake called “mirin” is prepared for use in cooking and many recipes call for a small splash to flavor a dish.
Sake is prepared in a variety of types. Formerly, the government separated the wine into three grades, special, first and second class. One of the effects of this standardization was that small brewers were forced to sell their wine to larger producers who made standard blends of sake. Small variations are made in the sweetness to suit different preferences. In the last few years, strict government standards have been changed and many brewers now market their wine directly instead of selling to large companies. Consequently, there are now a huge number of wines on the market, many of them idiosyncratic in labeling and bottle shape as well as taste. Following the example of beer brewers, many sake companies now sell unpasteurized sake. The taste is different and the shelf-life short, however. Western alcoholic drinks have reduced the popularity of sake. Beer began to be popular in the late 19th century and since the 1960s Western alcohol has limited sake sales.
Most sake is consumed soon after production. Even unpasteurized sake is not suitable for aging which is not a crucial factor to flavor as is the case with Western wine. Special types of sake are produced for special occasions; gold leaf is put into special New Year’s wine, for instance, or wine may be carbonated.