Located in Handa City, to the west of Okazaki, the Kunizakari Sake Museum is the ideal place to learn about the history, preparation, and drinking of sake or “nihonshu”. Here we can present a little of the theory; for the practice you should head for the tasting corner at the Museum, or any self-respecting bar or store.
Wet rice cultivation started in Japan nearly 2,500 years ago, and the production of sake seems to have come with it. Initially, it was produced by chewing up and spitting rice into a large bowl to ferment. This “kuchikami” sake was replaced many centuries later with the discovery of yeast, which also increased the alcoholic content.
Originally the process of sake production was controlled and sake produced only for the imperial court and the large temples and Shinto shrines, sake being associated with religious and agricultural festivals (ensuring good harvest, etc.). However, over time sake became more widespread and common people also made alcohol despite frequent laws outlawing its production and consumption.
Sake also had an important social function. Drinking sake brings the gods among people, assisting them to cooperate and live together, easing relationships within the community. For this reason, sake was not usually drunk alone, but with others. It is also always placed on the grave of dead relatives along with an item of food.
There are several types of sake determined by the method of distillation, the ingredients used, and the quality of preparation. Sake is classified as “seishu” (pure alcohol). There are also other divisions based on the ratio of polished to non-polished rice.
The most important factors in the preparation of sake are of course the skill of the brewer (“toji”) and his staff, and the ingredients. The best sake is made from rice, koji (fermented rice that contains the fungus needed to make alcohol) and good spring water. Over 90% of sake you buy is made from these ingredients but with added alcohol; purists regard this as inferior sake.
Sake is made from autumn to spring, when it is easiest to control temperature. The rice used in making sake is very large-grained and low in proteins and fat. The rice is polished to remove the outer layers leaving less than 50% of the original grain. This is then steamed, and koji and water added. Fermentation makes an alcoholic mixture, to which koji, steamed rice and water are added two more times. This “moromi” is then strained and separated, allowed to settle, and then filtered, heated twice to kill bacteria and finally bottled.
High-end sake has a subtle-blend of five flavors (sweetness, sourness, pungency, bitterness, and astringency) and a mellow fragrance. Aged sake has a soft, mellow taste but sake is not usually stored more than a year.
Sake is served at a variety of temperatures. It can be served hot (“atsukan”), warm (“nurukan”), or lukewarm (“hitohada”). When served cold, sake at around 5 degrees is called “yukibie” (snow-chilled), at around 10 degrees “hanabie” (flower chilled), and at around 15 degrees “suzubie” (cool chilled). Some tips for tasting sake:
a) When appraising sake, a “kikijogo” is used. This is a small white cup with two concentric circles printed in the bottom.
b) The sake should be served at 20 degrees C. The cup is poured 80% full just before tasting.
c) The best color is called “aozae”, and is a slight yellow with a tinge of blue. Sake with a brown tea-like color will often have too many sub-flavorings, and colorless sake will often lack flavor.
d) The “kikijogo” is brought to the nose, slightly rolled in the cup, and the bouquet is tested. The bouquet of sake comes from the process of maturation or other sources.
e) Approximately 5 ml of sake is taken into the mouth, and held for 2-5 seconds to judge its flavor. The sake is rolled on the tongue and judged as being heavy, thin, sweet, salty, clean, or dirty.
Sake is drunk from a “choko”, a small cup that dates from the Edo period when chinaware started to become popular. Earthenware was mainly used in the Nara period, and in the Muromachi period lacquerware was mostly used. Even today, you often see sake served in a small square wooden cup. The word “choko” is reportedly derived from the Korean word “chonku”, which means “a small, shallow cup or dish”. When sake is served hot, it is put in a small pottery bottle called tokkuri. The tokkuri is placed in a hot bowl of water until the sake reaches the correct temperature (about 50 degrees C).
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