The ancient history of Japan is intertwined with that of sake: it was mentioned by the Buddhist monk and philosopher Kenko as early as the XIV century in his book entitled Essays in Idleness.
Any Westerner wishing to bring it into the conversation or raise his glass saying "Kampai” needs to know that it is pronounced without accents. But are you sure to know what Japanese sake is?
What is Sake?
It is incorrect to call it a rice wine, liquor, spirit or type of beer: sake is an alcoholic drink (from 13 to 18%) obtained from a double fermentation process induced by a microorganism (a mould) called Koji and by the addition of a yeast known as kobo.
Sake comes in many varieties. Officially, Japan classifies them in three denominations: Ginjoshi, Junmaishu and Honjozushu, but there is an infinite number of different types.
The type of rice is one of the variables influencing flavour, along with water, rice refinement, koji, the type of yeast and pasteurisation. Last but not least, the human hand, since most of the production phases are carried out manually.
Sake is consumed in all seasons and is rarely stored for more than a year, unless it is a Koshu, that is to say aged long enough to acquire the taste of cherry, walnuts and spices.
How to serve and consume sake
While the more refined and subtle versions are at their best when served at around 7° like white wine, sake is nevertheless also enjoyable at room temperature. Some types, when warmed in a bain-marie to a temperature of 40° or 50°, develop an excellent complexity and body. In recent years, a sort of sparkling sake has been in production, which is reminiscent of western-style bubbles. There are approximately 2000 producers throughout Japan, located in an area extending from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
In Japan we have met Yujin Yusa, whose family has been producing this drink for 300 years. Yusa produces 120,000 bottles under the brand name of Ninki-Ichi and was the first manufacturer to make sake twice a year, instead of just during the winter. Yusa takes us round the factory to taste various types of sake and informs us that exported sake is pasteurised. Drinking it fresh is quite another experience. Only certain types of rice, which have a large grain and are more expensive, are destined to become sake. Production starts after harvesting. The crucial phase is when the koji is added: this enzyme is extracted from rice and it is the essence of sake, the magic wand performing the miracle. Koji transforms the rice starch into glucose. Then the yeast is added: this is why it is referred to as double, multiple and parallel fermentation.
How Japanese sake culture is evolving
The Japanese sake culture is undergoing a radical transformation. No elderly Japanese gentleman, drinking sake in a masu – a sort of small cedar wood box – would ever have imagined seeing his grandson enjoying it out of a glass instead of a little old ceramic pot. A blue spiral has been drawn on the bottom of the tasting bowls to evidence any defects: sake must be crystal clear.
To show how much things have changed, the Fine Sake Award 2017, a competition held in February every year to select the best sake in all of Japan, has chosen to adopt the wineglass method – or gourmet glass – for the tasting finals of its most recent editions.
We have blind tasted as many as 100 varieties with the gravitas only a samurai could mustered up. Apart from the winners, about 30 out of 700, sake is firmly embedded in tradition despite the western infiltration of glasses and bubbles. Sake gets its own back by finding its way onto the tables of other countries, not only as an accompaniment for dishes of Asian inspiration but also after dinner or as an ingredient for cocktails.