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Japanese Saké

Japanese Saké is the most authentic alcoholic beverage in Japan.
But interestingly, Saké also means common alcoholic beverages.
Because in Japan, all alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, whisky etc.) are called Saké in general.
When we want to make it clear that we are saying about the Saké (rice wine) , we use the word Nihon-shu (日本酒) .
As you know, Nihon means Japan and Shu is another pronunciation for the 酒 Saké in Kanji
Let’s have a look around the world of the most authentic alcoholic beverage: Japanese Saké.

Kanji –Saké

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 Saké is 酒.
According to the most supported theory, 酒 illustrates a pot of Saké and running water (maybe it’s a flow of Saké).
As I mentioned above, 酒 is also pronounced as Shu

1. History of Japanese Saké

The history of Saké can be traced back to the time when rice was introduced into Japan (maybe about 3000 years ago).

Saké made from the first harvest of rice was dedicated to the gods saying “thank you” for a good harvest and praying for the better harvest of next year.
According to the pundits, ancient Saké resembles yogurt with less water than today. 

If you are interested in the relationship between Saké and Shinto, visit here
Rice and Shinto 


In the 14th century

In the 14th century, new techniques such as heating for the finishing called “hi-ire” were born.
Some prestigious Buddhist temples in Nara started making clear Saké in this era and this movement was gradually commercialized. 
As time goes by, these techniques came down to outside of temples into other districts such as Nada and Itami in Hyogo prefecture.


In the 17th century

In the 17th century,when Edo (now Tokyo) became the center of politics, people began to transport a lot of Saké from the western region to Edo (the east). 
At that time, the western region was called as “kami-gata” (literally, the upper area), because the Emperor lived there. 
As a result, people presumed that the  Saké “descended” from the west to the east.
This large-scale transport produced some new systems such as money order, Saké wholesaler, and I-zakaya.

* As for the difference in the culture between the west and the east, Visit here
the West and the East

2. with rice, not with grapes

Since ancient times, Saké has been made from rice. 
Why not from grapes?
It is true that grapes have existed in Japan since ancient times. 
In the forests, they could find wild grapes (vitis coignetiae)  and another type of  grapes (vitis vinifera) have been cultivated since the 12th century. 
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.
It was not until  the end of the 19th century that the first authentic wine was made in Japan under the influence of westernization.



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 Saké 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.

3. Classification of Saké

Maybe you have already heard the word “Daiginjo” or “Ginjo”.
But do you know exactly what they mean?
Both Daiginjo and Ginjo are Tokutei meisho-shu which consists of 8 types of quality Saké designated by a special law.
There are 
2 groups in Tokutei meisho-shu : A: Junmai-shu and B: Honjōzō-shu.
       *As you already know, shu is another pronunciation for 酒(Saké).

chart classification of sake

The Seimai-buai means the rate of remaining rice, not the rate of polishing.
For example, if you polish 40% of the rice, the Seimai-buai is 60%.
If you polish 50% of the rice, the Seimai-buai is 50%. 

A: Junmai-shu Group 

All the ingredients of Junmai-shu are rice and rice kōji.
According to the rate of rice remaining after being polished (
Seimai-buai), we divide them into 4 types.
1: less than 50%
Junmai Daiginjo-shu
2: less than 60%
Junmai Ginjo-shu
3: 1) less than 60% or 2) Junmai-shu produced in special methods (including special rice) 
Tokubetsu Junmai-shu
4: All the Saké made from only rice and rice kōji ⇒Junmai-shu

* If you produce Junmai-shu in special methods using the rice of Seimai-buai less than 60%, you can choose the name; 2: Junmai Ginjo-shu or 3: Tokubetsu Junmai-shu.

B: Honjōzō-shu Group 

The ingredients of Honjōzō-shu Group are rice, rice kōji and pure distilled alcohol. The quantity of alcohol should represent less than 10% of the rice in weight.
According to the rice polishing rate, we divide them into 4 types.
5: less than 50%
6: less than 60%
7: 1) less than 60% or 2) Honjōzō-shu produced in special methods (including special rice)
Tokubetsu honjōzō-shu
8:  less than 70% ⇒Honjōzō-shu

* If you produce Honjōzō-shu in special methods using the rice of Seimai-buai less than 60%, you can choose the name; 2: Ginjo-shu or 3: Tokubetsu honjōzō-shu.