Samui Wining & Dining
For Goodness Sake!

We know all about Japanese rice-wine already - don't we ?


5Accidents. History is littered with them. Once upon a time, the engineer James Watt went to make a cup of tea, and ended up inventing the steam engine. Archimedes shouted, “Eureka!” after he’d jumped into the bath and found that an amount of water exactly equal in volume to him was now all over the floor. When an apple fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, he suddenly discovered gravity. And Alexander Fleming’s mouldy sandwich led him straight to penicillin. But one other significant accident remains to be explored – the way that sake was ‘discovered’.

    Many people think that sake is the potent Japanese brew that’s otherwise known as rice wine – and to a large extent this is true. In Japan, this same rice wine is called ‘nihonshu’, and is one of the many alcoholic drinks you’ll find there. The Japanese word for any alcoholic beverage is ‘sake’, whether it’s beer or table wine. But, over the years, the rest of the world has taken this word – sake – and used it to describe the rice wine specifically, which is now widely exported.

      Around the end of the 3rd century AD, Japan first began wet-rice cultivation on a national scale – and it wasn’t too long afterwards that sake emerged. It was bound to happen. The combination of water and rice lying around together would have quickly led to mould and fermentation. And there’s no doubt that quite a few happy rice farmers could have testified to the ‘beneficial’ effects of this slushy mess. However, this was not the way that things were meant to happen.

      No – it was a different sort of slushy mess that suddenly became popular. This first, nationallyrecognised sake was called ‘kuchikami no sake’, which, translated, means ‘chewing-in-the-mouth’ alcohol. Yes – at set times of the year, entire villages would all sit around and chew mouthfuls of rice, which they then spat into a big tub. Actually, this was a hugely popular way of doing things, and it was used to make chestnut, millet and acorn wine, too. The enzymes from the saliva converted the starch to sugar, and then this ‘sweet mixture’ was mixed-in with freshlycooked rice and allowed to ferment naturally. Interestingly, this approach to making ‘hooch’ is quite common, and has been used by American Indians, African tribesmen and the natives of the Amazon, amongst others. The resulting mixture is a kind of potent porridge, but is comparatively low in its alcohol content.

       Centuries later, the mould, aspergillus oryzae, was discovered and, used together with yeast, made for a much more potent brew. The starch was converted to sugar by the mould, and the sugar was turned into alcohol by the yeast – all in one continuous process. This really created a porridge with a poke – it was around 25% alcohol by volume! Not only did you not need the whole village to chew the rice, but the results were effective enough to keep people coming back to make more – as soon as they could stand up again, that is. Porridge has never been so popular!

       By the end of the 17th century, the process had been refined and the sludge went out of the window, leaving behind the clear liquid that we know and love today. Anyone who had the resources could begin a sake brewery, and it’s been estimated that there were more than 30,000 of them before the government got wise and clamped down by means of taxation.

      In the 20th century, new discoveries and technologies further improved the overall quality, but the Second World War was a major turning point in the industry. Most of the rice produced was channelled into the war effort, and the government placed strict limits on how much rice was made available to make sake. But in order to compensate for this, pure alcohol was allowed to be added to the small amounts of rice mash. This practice still survives today, and has become one of the ways to judge the quality of a sake.

      In today’s world, there are many different sorts of sake available in sweet or dry forms, but, basically, you can consider two main types. The ‘normal’ sake is known as ‘futsuu-shu’, and is more-or-less the equivalent of a table wine. It’s made with a significant amount of added alcohol, is cheap and easy to produce, and 80% of the sake you’ll see falls into this category. But then there’s the ‘premium’ sake – ‘tokutei meishoshu’ – and this is where we reach the perfection of the brewer’s art! The rice is milled, and milled again – each process grinding away the outer layers. These layers contain fats and proteins that interfere with fermentation – only the inner core contains the starch that eventually becomes alcohol. The normal-grade sake is quickly made from unmilled grain. And with the lesser-grade premiums, the rice is milled once, and reduced to about 75% of its original size. But with the top quality brands, the twice-milled rice is ground down to less than half-size and contains only starch. Just 6% of the world’s sake falls into this category – it’s light, fragrant, fruity, refined and expensive.

      As well as its popularity, the history and traditions that surround sake have also filtered through to the West. Although it’s generally believed that it should be imbibed at body temperature, you can quite happily drink it chilled in summer and warm in winter (ask for it chilled on Samui!). Traditional sake sets – small jugs and saucers – are widely available and attractively complement the sake ritual. In fact, it’s become so accepted that you can even find variations in the form of ‘lite’ brands and ‘fizzy-soda’ types – right now, there’s probably more than a few Japanese ancestors turning in their graves!

      Today, sake has become as well-known as Jamaican rum or single malt Scotch whisky and, possibly, even more popular, worldwide. There’s a certain style to bringing out the sake set, which other tipples don’t quite have. It’s also one of the most refined spirits you can get – and there’s nothing accidental about that!


Rob De Wet


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