Japan and Sake – A Drink Everyone Should Experience

By Mike Sullivan

If you have ever been to a Japanese restaurant you have perhaps either been tempted, or been recommended, to order a typical Japanese drink known as sake. This alcoholic drink is clear looking in appearance and is normally served either cold or hot, normally it is served in a special beaker (=徳利 Tokkuri) and is poured into a small cup or small dish (=お猪口 Ochoko/盃 Sakazuki). It is perhaps one of the most famous drinks of Japan known around the world, and without doubt it is extremely popular in Japan.

Depending on what kind of food you are eating it can be drunk with dinner, but often people drink after finishing dinner – it is a good drink for relaxing and chatting with friends. Just like any other alcohol the taste is dictated by the quality, and price, of the sake, if you buy a cheaper one you will notice that it is quite raw and will feel like the alcoholic content is higher, however a better quality sake will taste much smoother and is more enjoyable to drink. There is an official Sake Day (日本酒の日) on the 1st of October.

Japanese sake 002

Sake through the ages – from the Nara Period until now

Sake is first mentioned in history during the Nara Period (710 – 794 AD), it was made from rice, water, and kōji mold (麹, Aspergillus oryzae) and although this was the alcoholic drink of choice for most people at this time it had a low alcoholic content. By the start of the 10th century it had further spread to festivals and religious ceremonies to the extent that temples had started brewing their own sake. When Europeans first began arriving in the late 16th century they were introduced to sake and quite quickly began to enjoy drinking it, in the years before Japan closed itself to the world the English who were based in the southwest of Japan often drank it. However, it is perhaps because Japan expelled all foreigners and closed its borders soon afterwards that the process behind sake brewing didn’t reach the Western world until well into the 19th century after Japan had opened up again.

Aspergillus oryzae (麹)
Aspergillus oryzae (麹) / fo.ol

The opening of private sake breweries

Within 15 years of being opened up power was restored to the emperor of Japan, without going into too much detail by the 18th century the emperor had long been a powerless figurehead, however with the threat of Western influence and the need to modernise the state men of both influence and power brought about the end of the Shogunate and the restoration of the emperor, thus this time became known as the Meji Restoration. Amongst the sweeping changes and new laws across Japan one particular law allowed anybody to have their own sake brewery. This was very popular and thousands of private breweries were opened shortly afterwards, unfortunately the government sought to use this opportunity to tax these new businesses and within a few years over two thirds went out of business. Many of the breweries that did survive were owned by rich families who used leftover rice from their crops for the making of sake and who even today still make sake.

Barrels and barrels of Nihonshu (日本酒) at Meiji Jingū
Barrels and barrels of Nihonshu (日本酒) at Meiji Jingū / Maarten1979

The development of sake brewing

However, it is easy to understand why the government wished to tax these businesses so much, they were lucrative companies which were earning a great deal of money to the extent that at times nearly half of the government’s income from tax was derived from the sake industry. As can be imagined although the government relaxed laws on who could brew sake within a decades they had banned the brewing of sake by individuals as so many people had started to make their own in order to avoid taxes. This was a problem which was by no means unique to Japan, however even today this law is still in effect. World War 2 saw Japan being hit with huge shortages in almost all resources including rice; as such rice supplies for sake were severely limited and new technologies were researched in order to keep up production. One method was to add pure alcohol and glucose to rice mash before brewing, this had the result of increasing the yield by nearly 400% and is still used today for the majority of sake brewing.

In the post war period the popularity of sake was challenged by the rise of new drinks such as beer and wine, this has continued up until today so that beer consumption has outstripped that of sake consumption while the number of sake breweries has gradually reduced to under two thousand. In fact beer breweries had started to open in the late 19th century, for example the famous brand Yebisu opened its first brewery in 1887, however for a long time this alcoholic drink was very expensive and only drunk by men with money. To put it into perspective a bottle of beer could cost nearly ten times as much as a meal, this is a considerable cost if you imagine having a meal today and needing to pay ten times as much as the meal just for a beer. By World War Two many breweries were put out of business but afterwards we find the reopening of breweries and the steady rise in availability of cheaper and cheaper beer.

A great opportunity to try different sake is on Sake Day

The 1st of October is sake day, the reason for this is that the brewing season starts from this day and although it was originally just a national event it has in recent years become an international event. It is a great opportunity to taste different sakes and celebrate this great drink, although the number of breweries has declined the quality has continued to improve. One enjoyable aspect of this drink is that designers and manufacturers continue to make all kinds of beautiful vessels for the drinking of sake, for example here you can see a tin sake set which resembles bamboo. Technology also plays a part as can be seen here, this tin sake cup has been specially designed to give a sweeter aroma to the sake and also the conductivity of tin means that you can feel the coolness of the chilled sake through the cup.

nousaku_bamboo sake set


However, no matter how you drink your sake, or where, one question will always be which is the best sake to drink for someone who is trying for the first time. It is best to approach sake as you would when you drink any alcohol such as spirits or wine, the more money you are prepared to pay the better the sake; however unlike wine it is not necessary to buy a whole bottle. Normally you are able to get a 720ml sake beaker for a fairly reasonable price if it is expensive sake, and it is really worth paying extra. It is recommendable that if possible you also get a beaker of cheaper sake so that you can really taste the difference, once you have first tried sake and later wish to drink it again then it’s best to ask your waiter or waitress for their recommendation and keep this in mind in conjunction with your budget. Basically, like everything else in life if you choose the cheapest option the quality will just not be the same, luckily there are plenty of good sakes which can be bought at a fair price. Whether you drink it cold or hot, you are sure to enjoy it.

Below you can see a video that shows how to make Japanese sake. Thanks to Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery for letting us link their video.

“桝一市村酒造場 Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery”

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