Japanese sake, or nihonshu, has a long history dating back to 500 BC, playing important roles in traditional ceremonies such as weddings, festivals and New Year rites. But how did it earn this esteemed place in Japanese culture?
Before Japan could start making sake, it had to start growing rice. That happened around 500 BC, when cultivation techniques from China spread via Korea to Kyushu in southwest Japan. Techniques for making rice wine arrived around the same time, with the earliest mentions of Japanese people enjoying the beverage showing up in Chinese historical documents around 3 AD.
In time, Japan also developed its own methods of producing sake, such as kuchikamizake, in which rice was chewed and then spat out by a Shinto shrine maiden, with saliva serving as the fermentation agent. The more important advancement, and also the more palatable one by modern standards, came in 715, with the first recorded use of koji, a fungus cultivated on steamed rice, to provide the enzymes necessary for fermentation, which remains a vital sake ingredient in modern brewing.
Emperors, priests and brewers
The introduction of koij came during a period when sake production was administered by the imperial court, as per an edict made in 689. This control lasted for over half a century, and even included regulations about what classes of society were allowed to drink which classes of sake. Naturally, the best was reserved for the aristocracy, while peasants had to make do with murky, lower-quality brews.
However, the imperial court’s influence began to wane in the 12th century. Control of the country began to shift to samurai warlords, and production of sake to temples and shrines. More brewers meant more supply, and since the temples and shrines were willing to sell their quality brews to the common people, sake became an increasingly popular and accessible drink, enough so that commercial breweries began popping up in the 13th century, with Kyoto alone having 342 registered sake businesses in 1425.
Modernization of sake helps and hurts the drink
Sake production got another boost in the Meiji period, as Japan ended its centuries of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world, it began exporting sake in 1872, and started bottling sake in glass containers, instead of wooden casks, six years later. As modern scientific knowledge came rushing in, the National Research Institute of Brewing was established in 1904, and the development of improved strains of yeast helped keep the sake flowing freely for the next few decades.
During World War II, though, food shortages meant brewers were unable to obtain as much grain as they’d become accustomed to, and a government-approved practice of adding in distilled alcohol to stretch what rice was available for sake-making become common, with many brewers continuing to do so after the war, after rice rationing ended.
Out with the old sake image, and in with the new
In the 1960s, sake brewers faced a new problem. Beer became more popular than sake in newly affluent and globalizing Japan, and wine and whisky were also catching on. Sake became increasingly seen as the drink of unfashionable old men, and the harsh flavor of alcohol-added varieties didn’t help.
Yet in recent years, sake has been making a comeback. A renewed focus on junmai ginjosake, in which no alcohol is added and the rice used is extra polished, is resulting in sake both smoother-drinking and more flavorful. The Japanese domestic travel boom of the last decade is giving smaller regional brewers an opportunity to promote their sake with tasting rooms and tours. Best of all, many of these brewers have begun offering smaller bottles of their signature brews, just the size to take home as a souvenir and split with a friend, creating a new sake fan in the process.