Japan’s Wonder : The Road to Sake

Sake (sah-key) is nothing like the everyday wines we taste, but a wine it still somewhat is. Famously known as “Japanese Rice Wine”, Sake has come a long way from just being Japan’s local tipple to becoming one of the most accepted social drinks worldwide. USA itself consumes three times more Sake as compared to Japan’s consumption of their very own national drink.
The history of Sake dates back to as early as the 3rd century. At that time nuts and grains were chewed and spat into a pot and then allowed to ferment (sounds disgusting but is true!). Till the 10th Century Sake-production was a Government monopoly, but shrines and temples took up brewing from then on. And by the 18th Century, any person with a piece of land and pockets full of money was allowed to operate a sake brewery. In the year 1904, the Japanese Government opened the Sake Brewing Research Institute. This was accompanied by the ban on home-brewing of Sake. This was because brewing of Sake at home was tax-free. Today sake sales make about 2% of the Government’s income as compared to 30% in 1904-05. The number of sake breweries drastically reduced after the Second World War, thus, reducing the overall production of this native ‘rice wine’.
Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from rice, rice koji (the mold used as a yeast to convert the starch in rice into fermentable sugars) and water, by fermentation and filtration process and is brewed like a beer. Being located in the East of Asia, Japan has a moderate climate which is quite favourable for the growth of good quality rice. Good Sake depends on three things – a) Good quality rice, b) the water and the climate, and c) the brewing (via multiple parallel fermentation).
Only good quality rice must be used, like ‘shinpaku-mai’. The rice should be polished to rid of the excess oils and all that is left should be pure starch. The climate and water also contribute to the taste of Sake. Underground spring water and moderate climate prove to be ideal for sake production. Sake making is also similar to the production process of beer as both the methods involve brewing. The only difference is that the conversion of starch into sugar and the sugar into alcohol in the presence of yeast happens simultaneously, a.k.a. multiple parallel fermentation.
There are mainly three kinds of Sake – Honjozo-shu, Junmai-shu and Ginjo-shu. Honjozo-shu is that Sake in which a slight amount of brewer’s alcohol is added to the Sake before pressing so as to extract extra flavors and aromas from the wine. Junmai-shu or “pure rice sake” is the one made from only rice, rice koji and water, with no additives. And Ginjo-shu, is made from rice polished to 60% or less of its original weight.
Sake can be consumed chilled (preferable for quality sake) or at room temperature or even warm (not advised for quality sake). It can also be used as a cocktail mixer, but is ideally consumed straight. The ‘rice wine’ should always be stored in a cool and dry place, away from the wrath of the sun, but it should still be consumed within a year. If stored at room temperature, then it should be best consumed within a couple of months. And once opened it should be consumed within 2-3 hours.
Here are some facts on Sake that you may not have known. Authentically Sake was identified to be a ceremonial drink, so people seldom drank it. Sake in Japanese means – ‘any alcoholic beverage in general’, whereas in English the word Sake means – ‘rice wine’, hence the name. And as mentioned earlier that sake is also served warm. Well, the truth is that it is not because heating the drink enhances its flavor, but it’s quite the opposite. Sake is generally heated to hide its lack of flavor.

Sake, so far, has not captured its much deserved position in the Indian market. It remains a fancy drink packed in small collectable pretty bottles placed on the shelves of a fine-dining Japanese restaurant. As much as people have extremely vague views about it, it is as discerning as a vintage Bordeaux or a Islay Single Malt Scotch. With its increasing visibility and people fancying trying new beverages on a day-to-day basis, the wait shall not be as long for the beverage to be the new trendsetter on your next Saturday night regime. Kanpai!!

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