Saké is a Japanese traditional alcoholic beverage. In Japan, all alcoholic beverages are called Saké in general. The chinese character for Saké is “酒”. This character has its origin in the form of a pot of Saké and running water .


The history of Saké can be traced back to the time when rice was introduced into Japan. Saké made from the first fruits was dedicated to the gods saying thank you for a good harvest and praying for a better harvest next year.

Ancient Saké resembles yogurt with less water than today. In the 14th century, people started making clear Saké in prestigious Buddhist temples in Nara and this movement was gradually commercialized. New techniques such as heating for the finishing called “hi-ire” were born in this era. These techniques had come down to other places such as Nada, Itami.


In the 17th century when Edo (now Tokyo) became the center of politics, they began to transport a lot of Saké from the West to Edo. At that time, the West was called as “kami-gata” (literally, the above area), because the Emperor stayed there. The Saké was considered to “descend” from the West to the East. This large-scale transport produced some new systems such as money order, Saké wholesaler, and Izaka-ya.


Since ancient times, most of the Japanese alcoholic drinks have been made from rice. Grapes (vitis vinifera) has been cultivated since the 12th century and in the forests they could find wild grapes (vitis coignetiae). Yet they did not make wine with them. The grapes produced in the temperate and humid climate just like in Japan are very acid and lack in sugar to make wine. There was no chance to add sugar which was extremely expensive at that time. The first authentic wine was made in Japan at the end of the 19th century under the influence of westernization.


Shôkôsyu of China is also made with rice. Using sticky rice and rhizopus for fermentation, Shôkôsyu possesses strong aroma and dark color, while Japanese Saké is relatively mellow with light aroma. Yet they have something in common. Firstly, the custom to warm before drinking. We can enjoy a totally different taste after heating them. Secondly, the production process called “kake” in which rice, Koji and water are added little by little in several times, gradually increasing the scale of fermentation.

Manufacturing process

Although Saké is made following the extremely complicated process, its basis is relatively simple. There is an old saying: “First the Koji, and then the Moto, and finally the Tsukuri”. Tsukuri means the Saké manufacturing method as a whole.

  1. Moto (mother of Saké)

Cooked rice and water are added in the Koji to make Moto which is also called as “mother of Saké”. The purpose of this process is to multiply only the yeast and expel other bacteria. Here, three bacteria are in activity: i) nitrobacter, ii) lactic bacteria, iii) yeast. First, i) nitrobacter derived from rice or water reduces the nitrate in the water to nitric acid that attacks other bacteria. However, when the temperature is raised, (ii)lactic bacteria is multiplied and lactic acid expels other bacteria, including (i) nitrobacter (but the lactic bacteria cannot be reproduced only by increasing the temperature. There are three human-induced methods to reproduce them: a: Kimoto, b: Yamahai, c: Sokujyo).

When i)nitrobacter is extinguished, the yeast which is resistant to lactic acid is added and it starts to ferment glucose into alcohol. Saké is a drink with the highest alcohol content in the world. Many might say that whiskey or vodka contains more alcohol. But these percentages are earned after having distilled. In general, yeast dies because of the alcohol made by itself. Lactic bacteria also die because of the alcohol. But the yeast of Koji-bacteria does not die thanks to lipid protein that protects it against alcohol. This protein is also produced by Koji-bacteria. The highest alcohol content of Saké is 23% (It’s a little too strong for Saké and sometimes they mix it with water. Therefore, alcohol content of Saké is generally from 15% to 20%).

Thus two processes of fermentation advance in the Moto: i) fermentation to get glucose, ii) fermentation to get alcohol. Such a simultaneous fermentation is quite unique. Wine is made by one process. The wild yeast living in the skin of grapes ferments the glucose in grapes and there is no need to multiply the yeast.

  1. Moromi

Cooked rice, Koji and water are added in the Moto to make Moromi. To avoid weakening yeast activities, they are not added at once, but added little by little generally in three times to gradually increase the scale of fermentation (this process is called as kaké). After the fermentation of a month, they can gain 14 times more of Moromi.

Moromi is a cloudy fluid. By filtering the lees, it becomes clear. Saké without enough filtering is called “Nigori-saké (whitened Saké. Nigori means turbidity)”. Actually, it is more nutritious than the clear Saké (“sei-shu”).

After putting the last hand of “Hi-iré“, Saké is shipped for sale.

Kimoto, Yamahai, Sokujyô

These are the methods to effectively reproduce lactic bacteria.

A: Kimoto

Lactic bacteria are naturally multiplied by pounding cooked rice in the flat bucket to make Koji adhere to the whole rice. This operation called “yama-oroshi” (“yama” means a mountain) requires a mastery difficult to learn. So in the early 20th century when the Saké fermentation system was scientifically elucidated, simpler methods were invented. They are b: yama-hai and c: sokujyô.


B: Yama-hai

Koji dissolved in water is added to cooked rice to make the rice absorb the Koji enzyme in the water. It can save the effort of “yama-oroshi”. That is why this method is called “yama-hai” which literally means the abolition of “yama”. The cohesion between rice and Koji is lighter than in a) Kimoto.

C: Sokujyô

The separately cultured lactic acid is added. By this method, it only takes about 14 days to do Moto, although it takes about 30 days in the ways a) and b).


“Hi” means fire and “ire” means to enter. So “hi-ire” means “entering in the fire”. In this process, the clear Saké (“sei-shu”) is heated to 65°C to stop enzyme activities and sterilize Saké. In general, “hi-ire” is done twice: 1) after being filtered, 2) just before shipping for sale. But only 1) or 2) are also possible. From time to time, the process of “hi-ire” itself is passed over. In this case, the yeast is still active and we can taste strong “umami” flavor, although it can change rapidly in quality.


“I” means staying, “zaka (e)” is ,of course, Saké, and “ya” means the shop.

Some Saké shops (Saké-ya) started a service to offer a place to stay and drink, gradually selling snacks to eat with alcohol. Even now, we can find this kind of bar called “tachi-nomi-ya”. It’s a “stand bar” in both name and reality. Although we have to stay upright and drink, it is popular for its price and open atmosphere.

(Hanabusa Ippo"shi-nou-kou-shou(Four Classes) owned by itabashi art museum)
(Hanabusa Ippo”shi-nou-kou-shou(Four Classes) owned by itabashi art museum)

In the 17th century, under the Edo political system, feudal lords of each religion were to remain in Edo (today’s Tokyo) every two years for about a year. Most of the accompanying vassals had to remain alone during their stay in Edo. On the other hand, Edo attracted men in the provinces who had no fields to inherit, because as a newly constructing capital, Edo offered them a lot of work. But many of them had to remain single for a long time, because the ratio of women was quite low (less than 40%).

In such a situation, some I-zaka-ya began to offer simple meal with Saké and this style became very popular. Not only commoners, but also some samurai were eager to be there. There were ceremonials to be respected when samurai drank officially, which could be neglected at I-zaka (e) -ya. 

Even today, I-zaka (e) -ya is very popular. You can drink and eat without putting on airs at reduced prices. A wide variety of dishes are offered, not only Japanese dishes, but also the foreign dishes integrated and adopted to Japanese taste.