Sake, Japan’s unique rice wine

Japan has more Sake breweries (3,200 plus) than Australia has wineries (700 plus)! It exports Sake to 67 countries, although the bulk of production stays at home for simple quaffing with food and for traditional ceremonial usage. It is brewed throughout Japan, but the biggest production centres are at Nada near Kobe and Fushimi in Kyoto.

Australians drink little Sake. Even so, most retailers carry at least one brand, often in dusty boxes, on the top shelf, just out of reach. The commonest brand here, Gekkeikan, became so through the strong distribution of Milne Liquor Agencies, a division of Swift and Moore.

The arrival of Japanese cuisine in Australian capital and provincial cities seems to have done little to promote the national drink. Even Sydney’s Suntory Restaurant, a benchmark for Japanese food, scratches its head in wonder when it comes to Sake.

On a visit there recently with James and Tomoko Horne of Deakin, we asked to sample a range of Sakes but settled for the one and only brand available. It was a cool night, and served at about body temperature, the Sake’s soft, rich flavours complemented the food as well as sparking a party atmosphere.

The body rapidly absorbs alcohol from a warm, strong drink like Sake. At 15-16 per cent alcohol, it’s more than three times stronger than beer, about 25 per cent stronger than most Australian table wines, but a touch weaker than sherry or port.

No doubt the first Sake fermented itself spontaneously only to be harnessed, over time, by a grateful population. Just when Sake making became fully controlled by humans, no one knows, but it appears to have been part of the Japanese way of life for a thousand years or more. Gekkeikan, the brand mentioned above, claims to have been in the business since 1637.

James Horne, a frequent visitor to Japan, tells me there are numerous qualities and styles of Sake, as you’d expect from so many makers spread over a varied landscape. An official classification exists, sorting it into two quality grades, first and second-class. Professional Sake tasters, chosen by the Alcoholic Liquors Council (under control of the National Tax Administration Agency) determine the classifications.

It seems top grade Sake comes from a combination of non-sticky type big grain rice and hard water.

Freshly harvested rice is rich in starch, a non-fermentable carbohydrate. It has to be polished, washed, steeped, steamed, and cooled, to produce “Koji” a mash now containing fermentable sugars.

The “Koji” is mixed with water, yeast and more steamed rice to form “Motto” a seed mash that kick starts an alcoholic fermentation. After the “moto” has been doing its job for a day, more water, “koji” and steamed rice are added over two days.

This mix forms the main mash (“moromi”) which undergoes a slow fermentation at 15 degrees Celsius over a period of twenty-five days.

With fermentation complete, the fresh Sake is separated from the sediment by filtration, followed by cold stabilisation, further, filtering and blending, pasteurisation, storage, and a final blending, filtering, and pasteurisation prior to bottling.

There are two main style produced commercially: the full-bodied and dry traditional “Karakuchi” and the lighter, sweeter “Amakuchi”. The latter apparently being mainly a post-war phenomenon to attract a younger drinker with a sweeter tooth.

In response to competition from other alcoholic beverages, Sake makers now also offer both low alcohol (12 per cent) and high alcohol (19 per cent) Sakes to cater for a wider range of tastes.

Traditionally Sake is consumed at about body temperature. It is warmed placing a porcelain serving jug (“Tokkuri”) in hot water, then served in small (about 18 ml) porcelain cups (“Sakazuki” or “Choco”). I notice Gekkeikan offers complete serving sets through liquor outlets.

Although Sake is quite rich, it is also delicate and goes well with sashimi, raw fish, tempura, fritters, and tofu.

In Japan, Sake was traditionally the toast on all ceremonial occasions. In fact, the Japan Sake Brewing Association still pressures politicians, diplomats, and businessmen to use it at official functions as a symbol of Japanese culture.

Traditionally, too, it was a social drink, the obligation being to keep your fellow drinkers’ cups filled and then toasting with a cry of “Kampai” – a ritual drug taking we Australians can relate to easily.

These days, Sake is served chilled, on the rocks and mixed with soft drink. But there are a million blander drinks for that sort of use. I somehow think it’s best enjoyed in the traditional manner with traditional food.