Japanese Sake – A History in a Cup

A Brief History

One can almost say that sake is the counterpart of sushi when it comes to traditional Japanese cuisine. You can see it being served in pubs, convenience stores, seen in special ceremonies, and even served at homes. It is a symbolic drink celebrated by Japanese people. And just like sushi, sake plays an integral part in the Japanese cuisine, making it their national drink. But what is sake?

Sake, which is also known as nihonshu, is an alcoholic drink made from rice, koji (rice malt), and water. Being the national beverage of Japan, sake is mostly found and seen during ceremonies in temples and shrines, served in a porcelain bottled called tokkuri and sipped in porcelain cup called sakazuki. If we were to trace back, sake’s origins remain unclear but the earliest production of alcohol began in China around 500 BC. Sake production was a government monopoly. However, temples and shrines began producing and brewing sake of their own during the 10th century, making sake a ceremonial beverage in Japan. When the Meiji Period came, it was then permitted that anyone who can make and brew sake can open their own, which sprouted thousands of new breweries in just a year. The demand for sake was high and intense and improvements of brewing sake increased the quality and production, but because of the increasing taxation, almost two-thirds of home breweries who didn’t own license were forced to shut down their business. During World War II, because of the shortage of rice, sake began evolving its taste. Pure alcohol and glucose were added to the production of sake, which you can almost compare to Western drinks like beer and wine. However, traditional sake breweries still exist to this day.

For most Japanese people, sake isn’t just a drink you share with others. It is a connection made by pouring over sake to your friend, sharing conversations, and tasting the flavors of life.

Types of Japanese Sake

Because of the rising popularity of sake in the country, most cheap sakes lost its charm and was gradually replaced by premium sake and other Western alcoholic drinks. In here, you will see the five essential sake types of the country which includes:

  • Junmai-Shu – can be loosely translated as pure rice sake, Junmai-Shu is made with rice, water, and koji only, retaining that authentic rice flavor it has. It doesn’t have any alcohol added to it. It is made with rice that has been polished 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain. The general flavor of Junmai-Shu is heavier and fuller than the others, with a higher than average acidity. Because of its rich and full taste, it is actually great to be paired with foods that are light so you can taste the richness that cuts through and makes it presence is known when you drink Junmai-Shu.
  • Honjozo-Shu – Like Junmai-Shu, Honjozo-Shu is made with rice that has been polished 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain, combined with water and koji. However, distilled ethyl alcohol is added to the process of fermenting the rice. Because of the addition of alcohol, the flavor has been enhanced and it has a more distinct fragrance than Junmai-Shu. The general flavor of Honjozo-Shu is lighter though a bit drier and is easier to drink. Most people prefer drinking it and is considered a great candidate if you like drinking warm sake on a cold evening with friends or co-workers.
  • Ginjo-Shu – Made with rice that has been milled 40% while the 60% of each grain has been retained with their original size. Because the fats and proteins are removed, it produces a more delicious flavor and the process includes rice mash under low temperature. The general flavor of Ginjo-Shu is lighter and more complex than the others with a sweet, flowery aroma that tickles the nose when smelled. Most enjoyed drinking Ginjo-Shu when it’s really cold so as to retain the natural flavor and aroma of it.
  • Daiginjo-Shu – also classified as a type of Ginjo-Shu, it uses the same method of rice mash but the rice is polished even more than the usual. More labor intensive steps are needed to make Daiginjo-Shu but the result is always satisfying. Though delicate in taste, it actually leaves a trail when you down a small glass.
  • Namazake – it is a type of sake that has not been pasteurized. Actually, all types of sake can be Namazake. Because of its special nature, Namazake must be refrigerated properly so the flavor and aroma don’t change and must be consumed right away. It has a lively and fresh general flavor that is careful to the tongue. Unfiltered Namazake is called Nigori-sake (cloudy sake), which is a good pair to dessert because of its sweet flavor.

Other types of sake include:

  • Infused Sake – popular among people, especially those who are just starting to take a liking to sake; this sake is infused with flavors such as apple and cherry. It is ideal for mixing with cocktails.
  • Kinapaku-Iri – is a type of expensive sake which has golden flakes in it.
  • Taru Sake – stored in cedar barrels, it has a woody and earthy flavor that many people find appealing.
  • Sparkling Sake – like the usual sparkling wine, this type of sake went through a secondary level of fermentation which produces a sweet flavor.
  • Genshu – it is undiluted sake that doesn’t have water added in the process, which is heavier to taste. Perfect for an after-dinner drink.

Tips and Etiquettes on Drinking Japanese Sake

Depending on one’s preferences, sake can be served hot, chilled, or at room temperature. Hot sake or also called as atsukan is enjoyable and most preferred during cold, chilly weather while chilled sake or reishue is preferred during hot weather. Typically, room temperature is high-quality sake. While sake is good on its own, it’s also great paired with skewers or snacks. But how do most Japanese people take their sake? Here are some tips and etiquettes to follow in order to enjoy a serving or two of sake.

  • Choosing the right drink. For most first timers, it is a must for you to try different types of sakes. In that way, you would know next time your most preferred drink. If you’re buying off the grocery or convenience store, it’s important to read the label and to know how much alcohol content there is. Fresh sake is usually the best but if you like stronger ones, matured sake is also an option.
  • Interestingly, there is another way of serving sake. This is usually done during ceremonies where the sake is poured out in a cup then placed in masu, a measuring container for rice. Traditionally, sake is served in tokkuri (porcelain bottle) and sipped from sakazuki (porcelain cup). But with the Western influence, some sake drinks, especially chilled sake, are served in wine glasses.

  • Sake is still associated with special ceremonies but one can enjoy sake on their own. Often seen in izakayas, it is enjoyable during appetizers. It’s not often enjoyed as part of big meals but in Western countries, they enjoy it nonetheless.
  • If you’re drinking with others, sake should be served to you and vice versa. It’s a common courtesy to hold out your cup when you’re asking for a refill and don’t forget to return the favor if your company wants a refill back. Always hold the tokkuri with both hands and when you’re on the receiving end, cradle the end of the cup at the palm of your hand and rest your fingers of the free hand on the side of the cup. This is to show respect. When everybody’s for themselves cups of sake, the usual cheer is kampai. And when drinking, always hold the cup close to your face and take small sips. Let the flavor of sake linger in your mouth and avoid finishing it all at once.
Source: japansake.or.jp

Where to Drink Japanese Sake in Tokyo

Never leave Tokyo without tasting sake. Here are some restaurants wherein you can score quality, delicious sake.

  • Kuri – trendy and reasonably priced, this bar stocks up over a hundred different types of sake ranging from the finest and freshest to finely aged sakes. It is situated nearby Ginza, the luxury district of Tokyo. First timers also get a benefit of an introductory tour of the bar. Located in: Japan, 104-0061 Tōkyō-to, Chūō-ku, Ginza, 6 Chome-6-4-15.
  • Akaoni – if you’re looking for something old-fashioned yet bursting with modern flair, Akaoni is the place for you. Located just five minutes away from Sangen-jaya Station. Beware though for Akaoni take their sake religiously and seriously. You will find a rare selection of sake, which includes seasonal sake called Namazake, an unpasteurized sake. Located in 2 Chome-15-3 Sangenjaya, Setagaya-ku, Tōkyō-to 154-0024, Japan.
  • Yamachan – located near Shinjuku, Yamachan is an affordable all-you-can premium sake bar. What’s best here is that you can take food along with you. It’s atmosphere, which resembles a classroom with its wooden furniture and wooden tables and chairs, will make you feel at home. Because it’s self-service, you pour out your own drinks. Located in 160-0022 Tōkyō-to, Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku, 5 Chome−17−11.
  • Hasegawa Saketan – this friendly restaurant opens as early as seven in the morning. Located inside Tokyo Station, bartenders here speak English perfectly and will help you learn more about sake, especially if you’re a first-timer. While waiting for your train to arrive, you can always have a serving or maybe two of their signature sake drinks. You can also purchase a bottle of sake in the next door store. Located in 1 Chome-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tōkyō-to 100-0005, Japan.
  • Suju Dining Rokkaku – have a great, wonderful time enjoying some of the best sake in town passed by generations by generations in this restaurant. They serve delectable foods that can be enjoyed with sake. They also have a wide selection of sake, from dry to smooth, sweet sake. Add to that their homey, almost wonderland exteriors with windows overlooking a greenery so pleasing to the eyes. Talk about the feast for the eyes and tummy. Located in Tokyo Midtown, Galleria Garden Terrace 2F, Akasaka 9-7-4, Minato-ku, Tokyo.

She’s cooking and baking for her family and friends. She finds grocery shopping therapeutic, always takes the longest time in the Asian section and debates with herself whether she needs that extra pack of instant ramen. A lover of sweets, she dreams of owning a patisserie and publishing her book but most of the time, she’s just really thinking of what to eat for breakfast the next day.

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