Sake, also known as Nihonshu, is Japan’s most iconic drink. Its precise origins are unknown but the emergence of an alcoholic drink made from rice may have coincided with the introduction to Japan of rice-paddy cultivation between 300 BC and 300 AD. Its basic ingredient, rice, is a staple of the Japanese diet and therefore deeply engrained in the national psyche. Sake truly earned its noble credentials in the 7th century when an edict from the Imperial Court endorsed its sacred nature and made it a part of certain rituals within the Shinto religion. The sake brewer, known as a Tōji, is considered to be a sophisticated craftsman and revered in Japanese society. Much of the brewing technique was developed in the late 16th century and technology really grew in leaps and bounds in the 20th century. Traditionally, sake was brewed in the winter, and a globe of cedar leaves would be hung outside the brewery when the new sake was being produced.
The quality of the rice and the water used to produce sake, like grapes for wine, are pivotal to the quality of the finished drink. In fact, like other liquors, the quality and origins of the water are of paramount importance as it accounts for 80% of sake’s composition.
The rice, too, is critical: around fifty selected types of rice are deemed worthy of producing sake and the grain is polished, leaving only the starch-rich core. In 2015, sake was designated as a geographical indication and can therefore only be made in Japan from home-grown rice. Like wine, each region has its own distinctive style.
Climate, rice & the impact
of the water
Mizu, Kome, Waza
Or in other words – water, rice and expertise. Water and rice are the primary components of sake. Regulations for the top appellations are in fact extremely strict: apart from rice, water, the koji-kin mould, yeast, some lactic acid to clean the bottom of the tank and possibly some neutral spirit, but in very limited quantities, it is forbidden to add anything else. No preservatives can be added and, unlike wine, there are no sulphites in sake – for over 450 years, sake has been stabilised using pasteurisation.
In addition to the quality of the ingredients, the expertise (or waza in Japanese) of the master sake brewer (toji) is crucial, considering the many processes involved in brewing sake. These begin with the preparation of the rice before fermentation (polishing, washing, soaking and steaming), then that of the koji (rice that has been inoculated and transformed by the koji-kin mold, a complex process lasting two days), the yeast starter, the main fermentation and all the post-fermentation processes (pressing, double pasteurisation, fine filtering with active charcoal, maturation and so on).
But the specific features of the sake brewing process stem from the principle of multiple, concurrent fermentations where in the same tank and at the same time, starch from the rice is turned into sugar (by the enzymes from the koji) and the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the yeast.
The aromatic and flavour complexity of sake comes from this method of brewing that is unique amongst fermented drinks.
How to drink
In recent years, sake has garnered international acclaim, partly because of the increased popularity of Japanese cuisine worldwide but also due to the unique ceremonial surrounding it.
Sake can be drunk chilled, at room temperature or heated depending on personal preference, the style of sake and the season. It is traditionally drunk from a wide variety of cups or a masu, a small box originally used for measuring rice and comes in a wide range of styles: in addition to the ordinary version, there are eight varieties of special designation sakes.
But sake is more than just a drink – it epitomises Japanese heritage, culture and lifestyle, with its distinctive nobility, refinement and elegance.
95% of Japanese sake is still consumed locally but exports are becoming increasingly prominent as sake gains traction outside Japan.
Asia is the leading export market for Japanese sake. In 2019 China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea’s market share totalled 59% (despite a 10.1% drop in 2019).
North America follows with 29% (26% USA, 3% Canada). After spectacular growth, the market is now expanding at a slower pace (+7.9% en 2019) and North America has dropped 5% over the past 10 years. Europe is in third place with 9% of sake exports. France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom are the most dynamic markets but new countries are emerging, including Spain, Belgium and Switzerland.