October 17, 2018
by Suguru Takauji, Hanami Yanagi & Yuka Yamazaki
Japan has nice alcohol called sake, which a lot of people in both Japan and around the world enjoy drinking. Sake is a really interesting drink because the taste is different depending on the type of water and rice used. Also, there are many ways of enjoying sake. Let’s find out more…
What is Sake?
Sake is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice or ‘rice-koji’. Koji is the fungus that is used in the process of fermentation. From a legal perspective, sake is also called seishu, in which the alcohol content is less than 22%. The main materials are rice, rice-koji, and water. The type of rice used to make sake is different from the kind people eat. It is called shuzo-koteki-mai, and the size of its grain bigger than that of normal rice. Also, it can be fermented more easily than normal rice.
Although water does not sound like a special ingredient, it does make up 80% of sake. Therefore, the quality of the water is very important for making a sake that tastes delicious. For this reason, all sake breweries are near to a source of good quality water. Water that contains low levels of minerals, like iron and manganese, is good for flavor. In addition, hard water can make a sharp-tasting sake.
In general, people tend to think of sake and other rice-based distilled spirits, like shochu, as Japanese sake. However, the manufacturing process is not the same. Sake is brewed through the fermentation of yeast, while shochu is distilled. Typically the alcoholic percentage of distilled spirits is 25%~30%. The alcoholic percentage of sake is under 22%, and most sake is around 15% alcohol content.
Sake can be drunk in various ways. For example, you can drink it at a wide range of temperatures. Cold sake has a fresh taste, while sake at room temperature is mild. And with hot sake, you can experience the sweet taste of rice.
Sake also contains a lot of amino acids, which can moisturize the skin. It is said that some geisha have used sake as a facial lotion before putting on their makeup. Moreover, sake improves blood circulation, so sake have a positive effect on a variety of different health conditions related to poor blood circulation. Therefore, elderly Japanese people often say sake is good for health. In fact, 60% of healthy Japanese centenarians drink a moderate amount of the sake every day. Drinking moderate amounts of sake is good, while drinking too much sake is not good for health.
The History of Sake
Sake is not the first alcoholic beverage in the world. Alcohol has been around since the dawn of civilization. The earliest form of alcohol probably came from naturally fermented fruit. Wine was first drunk by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia in 4,000 B.C. Beer is the second oldest, first appearing in Mesopotamia in 3,000 B.C. Finally, distilled spirits made their appearance in in Asia in 800 B.C., and later in ancient Greece.
As for sake, people started making it about 1,300 years ago in the Nara period (8th century). However, the people couldn’t drink it freely, but rather only during celebrations and festival rites. People prayed for a good harvest and good health. Also, people drank it to get rid of evil. They believed sake brought gods and people together. For this reason, even today Japanese people often offer sake before Buddhist and Shinto altars.
The people in the Nara period drunk only cold sake because they thought sake was a holy thing. The custom of drinking hot sake didn’t begin until the Mid-Heian period (about 969-1089). In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), people started to drink sake privately, outside of festivals and religious settings. In the Muromachi period (1338-1573), the drinking of sake became even more common and generalized than before. Moreover, people began using a thin-necked bottle with a round bottom, called a tokkuri, when drinking sake. People also began to bottle sake and sell it for business.
In the Edo period(1603-1868), people started to also make sake during the winter. They discovered that making sake at low temperatures slows down the fermentation process, which results in a good taste and depth. Also, a brewing laboratory was founded in the last part of the Meiji Period(1868-1912) in order to develop faster brewing methods. Since then, Japanese people found science is essential to making sake.
Clean and beautiful water is absolutely necessary for making good sake. Kyoto is called The City of Water because it has tons of water. There are some big rivers that run through the region: the Katsura River from the mountains in the west and north, the Uji River from Lake Biwa (Japan’s largest lake), and the Kizu River from Nara’s mountains in the east. These three water lines provide a great quantity of water to residents. But not only does water come from the rivers, but there is also plenty of water underground in Kyoto, around 20 billion cubic meters. That’s a lot of water, isn’t it? This is the why Kyoto is so famous for sake and has a lot of sake breweries. When you want to make sake, you need a lot of water. For example, to make two liters of sake requires forty liters of water. That is, you need twenty times the amount of water to make a single bottle of sake.
Famous Sake in Kyoto
There are many kinds of sake in Kyoto, but the Fushimi area in the south of the region is the most renowned. This is mostly because Fushimi has been blessed with the best quality water, which comes from wells.
In Kyoto, the best quality sake is made from the Iwai variety of rice, which grows in the Kyoto region. Iwai is a premium variety of rice that is ideal for making sake. The taste is dry, but offers the taste and smell of rice. So you want to experience Kyoto-style sake, we recommend that you try a bottle made in Fushimi from Iwai rice.
As you can see, sake is a really interesting Japanese beverage. It has the long history and is very traditional. And as Kyoto is the center of ancient Japanese culture, it is the best place to learn about and experience the tradition of sake. Once you visit a Kyoto sake factory, you will undoubtedly by hooked on sake. Then, you will find your favorite one.