Sake is the most authentic alcoholic beverage in Japan.
However, other alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, and whisky are also called Sake in Japan.
Because it’s a generic term.
When we want to make it clear, we use the word Nihon-shu (日本酒).
Nihon means Japan and Shu is another pronunciation for the kanji 酒 Sake.
That is to say, Nihon-shu means Japanese Sake.
To learn Kanji (Chinese characters) is always interesting and beneficial to understand what the word means.
Through Kanji, we can virtually grasp not only the meaning of the word, but also the background it was born in.
Therefore I’m going to introduce Kanji as often as possible.
Kanji for Sake is 酒.
According to the most supported theory, 酒 illustrates a pot and running water (maybe it’s a flow of Sake).
As I mentioned above, 酒 is also pronounced as Shu.
Wine of Rice
from rice, not from grapes
Since ancient times, we have made Sake from rice and often explained it as wine of rice.
But, why not from grapes?
Did no grapes exist in ancient Japan?
Yes. Grapes have existed in Japan since ancient times.
In the forests, wild grapes (vitis coignetiae) are available.
In addition, another type of grapes (vitis vinifera) have been cultivated since the 12th century.
It is widely believed that the first alcoholic beverage in Japan was wine made from grapes.
Because pottery containing wild grape seeds was discovered in Nagano Prefecture.
This pottery belongs to the Jomon era ( *10,000 B.C.-300 B.C.) when we cannot find any traces of rice wine.
Then why didn’t they keep on using grapes?
It is true that grapes have existed in Japan since ancient times.
However, they were not suitable for making wine.
Because the grapes produced in the temperate and humid climate like in Japan are very acid and lack in sugar to make wine.
Of course, there was no chance to add sugar which was extremely expensive at that time.
There is almost no doubt that the first grape wine was a result of natural fermentation in pottery.
It was not until the end of the 19th century that the first authentic wine was made in Japan under the influence of westernization.
Chinese rice wine (Shōkōsyu)
Chinese sake called Shōkōsyu of China is also made from rice.
Using sticky rice and rhizopus for fermentation, Shōkōsyu possesses strong aroma and dark color.
On the other hand, Japanese Sake is generally mellow with light aroma.
But of course, they have some in common.
- Firstly, the custom to warm before drinking.
By heating, we can enjoy a totally different taste.
- Secondly, the production process called “kaké” .
In this process, the rice, Koji and water are added little by little in several times, gradually increasing the scale of fermentation.