Japan's sake is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world, Sake has played a central role in Japanese religion, life, and culture for more than 1,300 years while the knowledge and techniques involved in Sake making have spread to every corner of the land. Sake also has utensils specially made for the enjoyment of Sake. Most of these utensils were influenced by “Shinto”, the religion in Japan. Our sake set included Tokkuri and Gui-Nomi. making it ideal for those especially fond of sake.
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Traditional Rules and Customs to enjoy Sake
As western wine has wine glass specially made for the enjoyment of wine, Sake also has the utensils specially made for the enjoyment of Sake. Most of these utensils were influenced by “Shinto”, the religion in Japan.
The decanter used to pour sake is known as an o-choshi or tokkuri. The mouth of this container is made intentionally small, both to facilitate smooth pouring and prevent the warmed sake inside from cooling. The vessel’s design ensures that its contents remain warm until the last drop has been consumed.
The origin of Sake
Although it is not certain when Japanese people began to make liquor from rice, but it seems to be after rice cropping, especially wet-rice cultivation, had been established and its stable harvesting had become possible.
The oldest record of liquor in Japan is described in the section of Japan in Encounters with Eastern Barbarians of “Sanguo Zhi”; (History of the Three Kingdoms) (so-called Gishi wajin den) which was written in the third century in China. This book describes Japanese were “fond of the drink” and also had a custom for mourners to “sing, dance and drink” at funeral services. However, this can not indicate what materials were used for that liquor or how it was brewed. Incidentally, this description of a close relationship between liquor and religion in “Sanguo Zhi” provides one of the reasons why sake brewing began as a task of miko (a Shinto shrine maiden).
In Japan, a brewing pit which was used for sake brewing in China was discovered from a pit dwelling house in the Jomon period, around 1000 B.C. There, some pieces of fruit such as Sambucus racemosa (ssp. kamtschatica), tara vine, mulberry and raspberry were discovered with pupa of a fruit fly which is attracted to fermented food. Since the liquor did not seem to be brewed from rice, it is controversial whether it could be said to be a direct origin of sake. However, these historic sites are important because they show the original stage of brewing in Japan.
It was about 500 years after the period of “Sanguo Zhi,” when a clear record of rice brewed sake appeared in Japan. There is the description in “Harima no kuni fudoki” (the topography of Harima Province) (written around 716). In a description, since dried boiled rice, which was portable food, became wet and got moldy, a person had sake brewed with it and had a party with that sake. This is a brewing method which utilized the saccharification of Aspergillus oryzae and it is similar to the one of modern sake.
In “Harima no kuni fudoki,” there is also a description on “sumisake” (refined sake). Some people say that this is the first appearance of present seishu (refined sake), but it is controversial. Ancient liquor generally seemed to be a soggy paste such as Nerizake (antique term for shirozake, or white sake) which still exists in Izumo and Hakata regions.
Even today, in the Niiname-sai festival (ceremonial offering by the Emperor of newly-harvested rice to the deities) of the Imperial family, the two kinds of sake of shiroki (white sake) and kuroki (black sake) which are brewed in such ancient methods are served. Kuroki is a black liquor made by the process where a grass called harlequin glorybower is baked in a covered pan and its ash is mixed into a turbid shiroki. And now, it does not seem to have been impossible to brew a clear and thin seishu which can be seen today from such a thick ancient sake. It is because there was a primitive filtering technique with cloth, carbon, sand and so on, if only for filtering turbidity. Therefore, it is not difficult to think that seishu was produced in Jodai period, about the same time as the production of sake itself also began.
Japanese Sake is Enjoyable in Many Temperatures
Japanese sake is among only a handful of alcoholic beverages from around the world that are enjoyable in many temperatures of warm and chilled. "Ginjo" and "Dai Ginjo" are most delicious when slightly chilled to maintain a fine balance between their flavor and aroma. Other types of sake taste better when served warm or hot. When warmed to the ideal temperature, these varieties go well with food and are easy on the constitution too. You will surprise how different the same sake tastes depending on whether it’s served warm or chilled.
The Finer the Sake, the More Sensitive it is to Temperature
In Japan, there is an well-organised classification to describe sake's various serving temperatures. The best temperature to serve a particular sake is usually indicated on the label. What's nice about drinking sake in warm is that it produces a mild lingering "buzz" faster than it would if served chilled. That means you can enjoy it to the fullest while drinking it in moderation.
By the same token, there are some types of sake that taste best when served chilled. The highly aromatic Ginjo is best served cold or simply “Hinata-kan”, that means “sun bathed" to about 30°C, to avoid upsetting the delicate balance between its fine bouquet and flavor by overheating. “Gen-shu" and “Namazake" are also most enjoyable when chilled. “Junmai” tastes great both warmed as well as at room temperature but it's also just as delicious when served nice and cold.
In 689, a department named sakabe (the office in charge of sake brewing) was placed in Sake no tsukasa (also referred as Miki no tsukasa [the office in charge of the imperial use of sake, sweet sake, or vinegar etc.]) in Kunaisho (Ministry of the Sovereign’s Household), based on Asukakiyomihararyo (the legal code of Japanese ancient state). In 701, it was further systematized by the Taiho Code, which led to the establishment of a brewing system for the Imperial Court, by the Imperial Court.
Sakabe was not only a name of a department but also an expert of brewing which corresponds to today’s toji (a sake brewer). According to “Ryonoshuge”(Commentaries on the Civil Statutes) which was edited in the latter part of the ninth century, the sake brewed there was a thin sake by mixing rice, bara-koji rice malt used for today’s sake brewing as well, and water together in jars and fermenting for about 10 days.
In the “Engishiki” (967) written about a century later, the major sake was thick, brewing rice and malt several times, which can be seemed as the origin of dan-jikomi (the three-stage preparation) in later ages. In addition, there is a description that there were 10 methods of brewing which reminds us of the origin of today’s shochu (distilled spirit), kijoshu, and sake of low alcohol concentration, such as liquor made of wheat, a sweet liquor made with much malts, and low-grade sake adding water. Moreover, it can be said that those techniques of juicing moromi (raw unrefined sake) by hanging in filtering cloths and skimming supernatant were the same as those of present.
"Engishiki" describes a structure of sacred sake tanks at Sake no tsukasa in Kunaisho to show that various sake liquors were already brewed in the almost same methods of brewing modern sake. Among them, a method described as 'Shiori' led to the base of the development of today's kijoshu.
After that, Soboshu received a high reputation which brewed in temples instead of the brewing organization directly under the Imperial Court. Among many Soboshu, 'nanto-morohaku' brewed by temples in Nara had kept a high reputation for a long time until the Muromachi period. It refers to the sake with high clarity, almost the same as today's seishu, brewed by the method using polished rice for both kojimai (rice for malt) and kakemai (rice for moromi [raw unrefined sake]) which is the base for present sake brewing, and it was called 'Morohaku' (sake of 100 percent polished white rice) compared to nigorizake (unfiltered sake) which was the mainstream sake at that time. The term had been used for a high-grade sake such as 'kudari-morohaku' in and after the Edo period. However, the amount of production of seishu was small in this period and it is thought that it was spread among only limited social classes such as dominant nobility.
The flourishing of commerce and the spread of the monetary economy in various places led to the distribution of sake as a product which had the same economic value as rice. In Kyoto, especially centered in Fushimi, so-called 'Tsukurizakaya' (a sake brewery) which produced sake in its own factories and had shops to sell the sake directly, began to flourish. On the other hand, aiming to secure taxes and based on the asceticism of samurai, policies which forbade the trade, manufacturing, and transportation of sake were often implemented.
In the early part of the Muromachi period, it is described in Sakaya Meibo, a document which registered sake shops and left in the Kitano-jinja Shrine in Kyoto, that the number of sake breweries around Kyoto in 1425 was 342. In addition, in "the Shibata family document: The origin of sake brewing" handed down in the Nada Ward, it is described that 'in ancient times, governmental officials called Miki no tsukasa brewed sake for rites and festivals in Dainairi (the Imperial Court), but in the Muromachi period the demand of sake became too high for them to sufficiently supply it, so relatives of the governmental officials began to brew sake in town, among which the sake produced around Sesshu was good quality,' which showed that the sake brewing industry grew rapidly in the Muromachi period.
The sake breweries at that time had a capital and many of them were also doso (pawnbrokers and moneylenders) at the same time who employed Yojinbo (bodyguards) in order to collect debt and guard their fortunes. Such a sake brewery with economic power also began to produce rice malt which had been done by different industries from sake brewery, and as a result, it came into conflict with the guild of conventional suppliers of malts. This conflict developed into the military conflict called the koji riot in the Bunan era in 1444, and as a result, the profession of supplying malt in Kyoto was extinguished and the koji-za (rice malt guild) was dismissed.
In "Goshu no nikki" (The technical book on sake brewing) written in the beginning of the Muromachi period, there are descriptions on techniques such as today's dan-jikomi, technique of fermenting lactobacillus, pasteurization and filtration by charcoal. As to the method of sake brewing, in addition to the conventional katahaku using polished white rice for only kakemai, morohaku using for both kakemai and kojimai appeared and its elegant flavor became popular. In "Tamonin Nikki" (The Diary compiled from 1478 to 1618 by Eishun and other Buddhist priests at Tamonin Temple), in addition to a description on the above pasteurization, the details of such a traditional method of sake brewing which had lasted until the Edo period are described.
Soon, sake breweries appeared in various places other than Kyoto and the sake produced there came to be distributed in the sake market of Kyoto. The sake breweries in Kyoto called the sake coming from other provinces 'yosozake' (sake brewed outside of the Kyoto area) or 'nukezake' (sake slipped through the law) and put up guards against them, and they tried hard to push them out. The sake breweries and town societies in and around the capital of Kyoto often submitted petitions to stop the selling of cheap yosozake to the bakufu's magistrate's offices. However, this yosozake was the beginning of jizake (local sake) which later became the center of Japanese sake culture.
Francis XAVIER who introduced Christianity to Japan wrote in the letter to his boss at the Society of Jesus in 1552 that 'sake is brewed from rice, but there is no other liquor; the amount is small and it is expensive,' which was the first report on sake written by Europeans. Of course, since Xavier evaluated sake from the standard of wine which was the liquor of his own culture, his impressions on its amount and price are interesting. In addition, Luis Frois, a missionary who had contacts with Nobunaga ODA and left many records, sent the information to his home country in 1581 such as 'while we cool liquor, Japanese warm it.'
Promoted by the cultural independencies of various provinces in the rivalry of powerful leaders of the Sengoku period (period of warring states), many new local brands were produced in various places, integrated with the food culture of common people in each places, and they became diversified in the points of taste, quality, amount of production, and so on.
In the earlier period, the quality of well-cured sake was said to be overwhelmingly higher and the price was more expensive than those of new sake. It can be guessed that well-cured sake had a brown color and a flavor like that of soy sauce as today's Shaoxing rice wine has. However, after the mass production of sake became possible, barrels were used instead of jars or earthenware pots in order to transport it. Jars and earthenware pots were brewing containers devised and developed for well-cured sake whose quality could be kept only if hermetically sealed, but a barrel could not be sealed up. For this reason, well-cured sake became less distributed, and people came to drink new sake gradually. The demand against new sake became higher and its price also became more expensive relatively.
In this way, it seems that the sake had changed completely from unfiltered sake to seishu by the end of the medieval period. However, it did not mean that unfiltered sake disappeared then, and seishu was not the same as the one at present. Unfiltered sake, including Doburoku (unrefined sake) brewed by farmers in their houses, had been continuously produced and distributed as a low-grade liquor which was cheaper and handy than seishu. And generally, since katahaku and namizake (sake brewed from unpolished rice) were the mainstream, it is thought that most of the seishu were yellowish and had a thick taste like today's mirin (sweet cooking rice wine) which kept zatsumi (unfavorable taste in sake) of unpolished rice bran.
Around this period, sake was exported to Japanese quarters and royal families in various places in Southeastern Asia through the trading by shogunate-licensed trading ship. Especially in Batavia (a part of Indonesia at present), the base of Dutch East India Company (abbr. VOC), sake was regularly imported and became a necessity of people's lives. Since sake had a little higher alcohol content than wine from Europe (mainly from Holland), a unique food tradition where sake was drunk as an aperitif and wine was drunk during meals in Southeastern Asia including Batavia was established.
In the early Edo period Japan had a technique which was later named as sake brewing in all seasons, and the sake were brewed five times throughout a year such as, new brew of sake, aishu (sake brewed in the middle season), kanmae-zake (also referred as kanmae-sake; sake brewed before winter), kanshu (sake brewed in winter) to haruzake (sake brewed in early spring). Because sake brewing needs a large amount of rice, it always competes with the food supply including rice. Therefore, the bakufu controlled sake brewing in various forms depending on the price of rice and food situation at the time.
At first, it introduced the system of sakekabu (an official certificate of sake brewing) for the first time in 1657, which was a licensing system for the sake brewing industry as anyone who did not have sakekabu could not brew sake. After the technique of sake made in the winter was established in Itami in 1667 by improving the preparation of kanshu, all other sake brewing was forbidden in 1673 as part the sake brewing control (the ban on sake brewing except in winter). As a result, sake brewing in all seasons was interrupted for a while. In this way, sake brewing was limited to winter so that farmers came to take on toji as a seasonal migrant worker only in winter.
Soon, various craftsmen groups of toji who had various local characteristics had been formed. Around this time, Tsukurizakaya generally brewed and sold wholesale in various parts of Japan. Especially in Edo, which was a large market by population concentration, professional wholesale merchants group appeared. And the yoriai (gathering) of wholesale merchants which sorted shipments arrived at Edo was also formed.
From the latter part of the Meiji period (after the Sino-Japanese War) and the Taisho period, sake brewing had been rapidly modernized. Some people say that this caused an extinction of traditional methods. Before modern times, what we call scientific reproducibility had always been a big problem for sake brewing. Even if a good sake was made by kimoto (a traditional method to make sake mash), it was almost impossible to 'brew the same sake again.
As for Fermenting yeast, mainly the natural yeast in the air or the yeast living in the brewery since old times (referred to as yeast in storehouse or yeast in house) were used. But since the strain was not stable and easily mixed with contamination, the quality of sake was not stable. And once putrefaction occurred, since the bacteria causing it entered into wooden barrels or wooden buckets, it gave a bad influence for several years, which was a disaster for sake breweries for a long time. The brewing environment which did not have any risk of such disaster was called safe brewing, which had been an important idea in the brewing industry until the middle part of the Showa period when sake brewing often suffered putrefaction.
The Meiji government, which won the Sino-Japanese War from 1894 to 1895, regarded the modernization of brewery industry which enabled safe brewing as part of national strategy and aggressively supported it by introducing microbiology of Western countries. The National Research Institute of Brewing (present National Research Institute of Brewing [NRIB]) was founded in 1904 under the control of Ministry of the Treasury. Soon, Yamahai-jikomi (a method of sake brewing) was developed there in 1909 and seed mash made by the quick fermentation method was devised in the following year, 1910.