What is Sake

Sake or Nihonshu, has been drunk for almost 2 millennia. Initially from China, the simple rice wine and its recipe was brought to Japan by travellers and merchants. (Incidentally, koji was not used in Chinese rice wine which uses Rhizopus for the saccharification of the rice starch to sugar.) Records dating back to the third century show that an intoxicating drink called “Kuchikami” was made by young maidens chewing grains, such as millet, rice, chestnuts and acorns. This mixture was then spat into basins and left to ferment and later imbibed. Over the past couple of millennia, this recipe has improved tremendously with the use of better ingredients and more advanced techniques!

Japanese Sake is made from rice, water, koji (Apergillus) and yeast. Good sake has no other ingredients other than maybe some added alcohol to balance its taste and texture. Initially used as an offering to the Gods, sake was made mainly in temples and shrines. Highly prized, only Emperors, Shoguns, nobility and foreign distinguished guests, priests and monks were allowed to imbibe this drink. As early as the twelfth century, historians noted that sake was offered to important guests both hot or chilled depending on the season of the year. It has been the chosen drink for auspicious events such as weddings, celebrations and company achievements over the centuries and now, of course, drunk by friends regularly.

Sake is NOT DISTILLED. Sake is NOT a spirit. But, Sake can be distilled. It is then called a Shochu which indeed can have a higher alcoholic contents of anything between 20-45% depending on the type of distillation, blending or otherwise.Sake is more akin to wine or beer; the starch from the steamed rice grains is converted into sugar whilst the yeasts work on the newly made saccharide mixture, turning it into an average 14-16% alcoholic drink. Sparkling sake can have a low alcohol content of 8%. Undiluted sake or Genshu can have an alcohol content of up to a maximum of 22%. Sake is less acidic, more alcoholic, cleaner and (often) sweeter than wine and beer. Sake can be crystal clear, cloudy, murky, sparkling or a combination of all the above.

written by Marie Cheong-Thong, BSA