What is sake? Explore the world of traditional Japanese rice wine

What is sake? Explore the world of traditional Japanese rice wine

Origins of Sake: A 2000 Year Old Tradition

Sake has a long history, dating back some 2,000 years. It is believed that sake originated from the custom of making offerings to the gods, and sake was used in various Shinto rituals and festivals. Over time, sake production techniques evolved and sake became a beverage that people enjoyed on various occasions.

When and how is sake enjoyed? Discover the diverse occasions in which sake is drunk.

Sake has traditionally been drunk on religious and ceremonial occasions, but today sake is enjoyed in a variety of settings. Sake is often enjoyed at izakaya (Japanese-style pubs), bars specializing in sake, and at home, where one can enjoy a variety of tastes and styles. Sake is also commonly enjoyed on traditional Japanese holidays such as New Year's and Obon. In recent years, younger generations have become increasingly interested in sake, and the sake market is expanding to a wide range of age groups.

Ingredients for Sake Brewing

sake ingredients

Sake is made from rice, water, rice malt, and yeast.

  • Rice: Sake is brewed using a specific type of rice called "sake rice. Specially cultivated sake rice called "sake rice" or "sake rice for sake brewing" is used to make sake. This is because these types of sake rice have larger grains and a higher percentage of starch in the center, making them better suited for sake brewing.
  • Water: Water plays an important role in sake brewing and its mineral composition varies from region to region. The unique characteristics of local water contribute to the flavor profile of sake, making it an essential element in sake brewing.
  • Rice koji: It is made by introducing koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae) to steamed rice. Koji mold breaks down rice starch into glucose and produces a variety of enzymes.
  • Yeast: By adding yeast, glucose is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and sake is produced.

Characteristics and Types of Sake

There are several types of sake, including ginjo-shu, daiginjo-shu, japanese sake, and junmai-shu. Sake is classified according to brewing method and rice polishing ratio. Ginjo-shu" refers to sake with a rice polishing ratio of 60% or less, and "Daiginjo-shu" refers to sake with a rice polishing ratio of 50% or less. Sake made from only rice, water, koji, and yeast, with no added alcohol, is called junmai-shu. The milling ratio directly affects the flavor of sake: the higher the milling ratio, the more delicate and refreshing the sake tastes, and the lower the ratio, the more natural rice flavor is brought out in the sake.

Three Major Sake Brands: Learn about Fushimi, Nada, and Saijo

sake brewery

The three major sake brands are Fushimi (Kyoto), Nada (Hyogo), and Saijo (Hiroshima). The reason why they are called the three major sake brands is related to the environment and historical background of each region, which is suitable for sake brewing.

Fushimi 伏見 (Kyoto)

Fushimi is located in Kyoto Prefecture and is known for its famous "Mikasui" water, selected as one of the 100 best waters in Japan. The area has long flourished as a suitable place for sake brewing, and many sake breweries still stand between the Kamo, Katsura, and Uji Rivers. Gokozui, used for sake brewing, is a medium-hard water containing a good balance of minerals, potassium, and calcium, and is characterized by its fine texture.

Fushimi has a long history of sake, with brewing beginning in 1594 in the area around Fushimi Castle, built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1635, the first rounds of the Imperial visit to Fushimi began, and Fushimi became a gathering place for travelers and goods, leading to an increase in sake consumption. With an abundance of good quality water, the sake industry in Fushimi developed greatly.

Nada 灘 (Hyogo)

Nada is located in Hyogo Prefecture and is the largest producer of Yamada-Nishiki, a type of rice suitable for sake brewing, in Japan. Nada is known as a good place for sake brewing, with its "miyamizu" spring water, selected as one of the 100 best waters in Japan. One of the main characteristics of miyamizu is that it is hard water with high mineral content and contains almost no iron, which can affect the color and flavor of sake. Nada has a long history of sake, with documents showing that brewing has been practiced here since around 1330. Then, in the Muromachi period (1333-1573), sake from Nada and other areas came to be highly regarded.

In addition to the existence of water and rice suitable for sake brewing, Nada became famous for sake production because of the advantages of maritime transportation. In those days, sake was generally transported by horseback to Edo (present-day Tokyo), where it was consumed, but Nada's close proximity to a port and well-developed maritime transportation technology enabled Nada's sake to become well known by barge.

Saijo 西条 (Hiroshima)

Saijo is located in Hiroshima Prefecture and is characterized by a climate conducive to sake brewing. The basin topography, surrounded by mountains 400 to 700 meters above sea level, has a large temperature difference, which is suitable for sake rice cultivation, temperatures of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius during the brewing season, which is suitable for sake brewing, and an abundance of high-quality underground water are all factors that contributed to the flourishing of sake brewing. However, the Saijo area is normally not suitable for sake brewing because of the soft water that springs from the ground. It is said that many sake brewers were unable to produce sake well because of the low mineral content and weak fermentation power of soft water.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), sake brewing flourished after Senzaburo Miura established the Miura method of brewing with soft water (the Miura method of brewing with soft water). This method was designed to accelerate fermentation by slowly raising koji mold and saccharifying the rice, and succeeded in producing sake with a full-bodied flavor, which is a characteristic of Hiroshima sake. The history of sake brewing in Saijo began during the Meiji period (1868-1912), and sake breweries began to gather in the area after the railroad was built in the mid-Meiji period. By the Taisho era (1912-1926), Saijo had developed into the "Sake Capital of Saijo" and established itself as one of Japan's three major sake brewing areas along with Nada and Fushimi. Incidentally, the sake that President Obama drank during his visit to Japan was a sake called "Kamotsuru Gold" from Saijo, a well-established sake brand that has been produced in Hiroshima for 150 years.

The Four Categories of Sake Flavor

sake crastman

Wine can be divided into three types: light-bodied, medium-bodied, and full-bodied, but sake can also be broadly classified into four types. Sake can be classified into four categories according to its "aroma" and "taste" elements: Kaoroshu, Mature Sake, Sour Sake, and Mellow Sake.

Kunshu 薫酒

Kunshu 薫酒 is a sake characterized by its high aroma and light, simple flavor. It tends to have a gorgeous, fruity aroma. The taste is clean and smooth, flowing smoothly down the throat, and many sake have a mild sweetness. The names of sake include ginjo-shu, daiginjo, junmai-ginjo-shu, and junmai-daiginjo-shu, all of which have a high rice polishing ratio. The gorgeous aroma of sake is called ginjo-kou (ginjo aroma), which is unique to sake produced from sake made with ginjo yeast.

jukushu 熟酒

Jukushu 熟酒 is characterized by its aromatic, intense and complex flavor. It has a complex, concentrated aroma of honey and dried fruits. It is characterized by its brown or yellow color, thick and viscous appearance, and is often sold at a high price due to its rarity. As for the name of the sake, it fits into the classifications of sake called koshu, aged sake, or treasured sake.

Although the length of maturation is not clearly defined, the Association for the Study of Long-Term Aged Sake, established to promote koshu, defines it as "sake that has been aged in a sake cellar for at least three full years, excluding sugar-added sake. However, since there are no strict legal rules, sake breweries around Japan have their own rules and definitions, and sell sake that has been matured for 2 to 10 years or more as "mature sake.

soushu 爽酒

Soushu 爽酒 is characterized by a simple aroma and a light, simple taste. In Japan, it is described as light and crisp. Souzake is described by two main names, Normal Sake and Honjozo Sake, and is the most commonly distributed type of sake. Nama-zake, which is unpasteurized and has the original flavor of sake, is also categorized as "fresh" or "unpasteurized" and has a clean, fresh taste.

junshu 醇酒

Junshu 醇酒 is characterized by a full-bodied aroma and rich flavor. It contains many of sake's original flavor components and leaves a long-lasting aftertaste. Junmai-shu and tokubetsu junmai-shu are the main types of sake classified as mellow sake, and are made from rice. Sake labeled "Namahashime," "Yamahai," or "Harazake" is also classified as munshu and allows sake drinkers to enjoy the true flavor of rice.

How to Choose Sake

sake cheers

Sake can be more enjoyable when chosen according to how it is paired with food, the season, and the occasion. For example, for a fatty meal, sake with a refreshing flavor goes well with it. On the other hand, if you want to taste the original flavor of the ingredients, such as Japanese cuisine, it is recommended to pair it with a robust sake.

  • Ginjo type: Sashimi, carpaccio, grilled fish, tempura of wild vegetables, etc.
    Sake from the ginjo type with a high rice polishing ratio has a fruity aroma and a refreshing taste, so it goes better with lightly seasoned dishes that make the most of the flavors of the ingredients rather than dishes with a strong flavor.
  • Junmai type: stewed dishes, simmered side dishes, meat dishes, stir-fried vegetables, gratins, etc.
    Junmai sake is characterized by the full aroma and taste of rice, so it is recommended to be served with well-seasoned dishes that go well with rice. It also goes well with dishes made with butter.
  • Normal sake and honjozo type: chilled tofu, carpaccio, chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), grilled sweetfish, cabbage rolls, etc.
    Sake with a light flavor and modest aroma can be served with a wide variety of dishes.
    It can be served with both lightly seasoned and strongly seasoned dishes, so when in doubt, it is best to drink a regular sake or honjozo type sake.
  • Old sake and long-aged sake: Grilled eel, beefsteak, stewed pork cubes, bean-curd soup, etc.
    Old sake and long-aged sake have a complex and profound aroma and flavor. Therefore, it can be said that they go well with dishes that have also been aged and foods with a strong sweetness.

It is best to savor sake with meals little by little rather than drinking large quantities.

Ten Famous Sake 10 Brands

Sake has a long history and can be classified into various categories according to its ingredients and brewing methods. Sake has been nurtured over a long history and is now loved by many people around the world. Here are 10 of the most famous sake brands.

Dassai 獺祭

sake dassai
asahi syuzo

Dassai is a brand of Japanese sake produced by Asahi Shuzo, founded in 1948. Dassai is characterized by the use of 100% Yamada-Nishiki as the raw material and by specializing in Junmai-Daiginjo sake brewing. The fruity, refreshing, and easy-to-drink taste is the reason why it is loved by many people. This is one of the brands we recommend to those who are familiar with sake as well as those who are new to sake.

Hakkaisan 八海山

Hakkai jozo

Hakkaisan is a sake brand produced by Hakkai Jozo, founded in 1992. It is characterized by its dry, light flavor and refreshing lightness. The flavor is easy to match with food, making it a good choice for beginners. All Hakkaisan brand sake is characterized by its ginjo production and high rice polishing ratio.

Kubota 久保田

sake kubota
asahi syuzo

Kubota is a Japanese sake made by Asahi Shuzo in Niigata Prefecture and characterized by its light and dry taste. Kubota can be classified into six types called the Kotobuki series, each of which has Manju, Senju, Hyakuju, Suiju, Hekiju, and Kouju. Manju" is considered to be the best of them all, and has been a favorite of many sake lovers due to its excellent balance of sweetness and sourness. It is recommended for festive events and can be drunk both chilled and at room temperature.

Bon 梵

sake bon
kato kichibe

Bon is a brand of sake produced by Kato Kichihei Shoten in Fukui Prefecture. It has been served at various international events and has even been chosen as the sake of choice for imperial ceremonies. It is currently exported to over 100 countries and is highly acclaimed around the world. The Bon brand is a junmai sake and offers a clean, sweet taste.

Aramasa 新政

sake aramasa No.6

Aramasa is a brand of sake produced by the Aramasa Sake Brewery in Akita Prefecture. Although the company was founded in 1852, its popularity has grown rapidly in recent years and it has a large core fan base. All sake produced by the Aramasa Brewery is junmai sake, and only the No. 6 yeast is used. The sake called "No6" made with No.6 yeast is particularly popular, and its refreshing, clean, sweet, unpasteurized sake is favored by many users. The design of the bottle and the company's efforts are also highly regarded, making it one of the most promising sake brands in the market today.

Jyuyondai 十四代

sake juyondai

Jyuyondai is a sake produced by the Takagi Sake Brewery in Yamagata Prefecture. Due to the company's policy, Jyuyondai is only sold in stores where the sake is well controlled, so it is rarely seen and is called a "rare sake". Jyuyondai is characterized by its sweet ginjo sake made from high-quality melted snow water from Yamagata Prefecture and sake rice such as Yamada-Nishiki and Sake Mirai. It is a sake that is hard to find, but if you have a chance to try it, please do so.

Kokuryu 黒龍

sake kokuryu

Kokuryu is a sake produced by the Kokuryu Sake Brewery, which was founded in 1804 during the late Edo period. One of the characteristics of this sake is that it is thoroughly produced in small quantities and maintains a high level of quality. Yamadanishiki and Gohyakumangoku sake rice grown in specific regions is used as the raw material, and Kuzuryu River subsoil water from the sacred mountain Hakusan is used for its soft finish. It is a daiginjo-shu and ginjo-shu with many of Kuroryu's fruity flavors, making it easy to drink for many people.

Suigei 酔鯨

sake suigei

Suigei is a sake produced by the Suigei Brewery in Kochi Prefecture. It is also a major sake that is currently available at many supermarkets and convenience stores. It is characterized by the use of spring water from Kagamigawa River, which has been selected as one of the 100 best waters in Japan, and is responsible for the crisp texture of Drunken Whale. Another feature is that the brewery has its own standards for rice polishing and uses a yeast with strong fermentation power called KA-1 to make its sake.

Gekkeikan 月桂冠

sake gekkeikan black gold

Gekkeikan, a major sake company, was founded in 1637 in Fushimi, Kyoto, and has been in business for over 380 years. Based on the technology it has accumulated over the years, Gekkeikan is also characterized by product development in line with the times, such as producing sake with zero sugar content. As a large company, Gekkeikan produces a wide range of sake, from junmai daiginjo to ginjoshu, nama-shu, and honjozo-shu. With so many varieties on offer, if you are in doubt, you may be able to find the sake of your choice among the Gekkeikan brands.

Denshu 田酒

sake densyu

Denshuis a sake produced by the Nishida Sake Brewery in Aomori, which was founded in 1878 and is still committed to handcrafting sake and careful brewing. It produces junmai sake, which can be called the starting point of sake, and allows you to taste the rich flavor of the rice. The sake is made with locally grown rice called "Hanasoui" and "Hanabukiyuki," both of which are suitable for sake brewing. Tasake, which is made entirely by hand, is one of the hard-to-find brands due to its limited production, but if you have the opportunity, it is definitely one of the best sake to try.