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What is sake? Part 1: The name and the origin

What is sake?So here you are, staring at a strange bottle with weird writings on the label. It has some English words but they are also incomprehensible. What is sake? Is sake a wine? Or is it a spirit? Are all sake the same or there are different types? Or maybe you have already tried sake before and know what to expect. You liked the taste and would like to buy a bottle yourself. But which one to choose?

First of all, what is sake? There are plenty of misconceptions about it. Why is that? Because people naturally categorise sake using the types of drinks they already know: beer, wine, spirit. But sake is neither.

What is sake?

Despite its clear appearance, sake is not a spirit because its alcohol content is too low, only 13-17%. Is sake wine? Absolutely not! It is often called rice wine, even in Japanese sources but its production method is so different that you can’t call sake wine. Nobody would call sake a type of beer but strangely enough, it’s probably closer to it in terms of the brewing method.

Mizubasho Junmai Ginjo sake
Mizubasho Junmai Ginjo sake

So what is sake then? Basically, sake is… sake, an alcoholic beverage essentially made by using rice, water, koji mould and yeast. A unique category on its own. Sake breweries use a distinctive brewing method to make sake. Its grade system is very different from any other alcoholic beverage. You can serve it cold or hot depending on the type of sake and the occasion. It can be paired with Japanese food, but it goes nicely with any other cuisine.

So I’ve been thinking for a while how to put basic information about sake on my blog. My readership ranges from those who have never tried sake and are looking for a simple explanation to people who work in the industry and know about sake way more than I do.

As a result, I decided to write a series of posts about what the nature of sake is, how it’s brewed, what types of sake exist, the history of sake, how to pick up right sake and so on. If you don’t know anything or know just a little about the drink, this series might help you understand sake a little more. But if you know a lot about sake, then you can use these posts to point others in the right direction.

What’s in the name?

The word sake in Japanese means any alcoholic beverage. The drink we call sake here is actually called ‘nihonshu’ in Japan. Nihonshu is translated simply as an Japanese alcohol. There is also the official name for sake, seishu, clear beverage (/clear alcohol) in Japanese. It’s usually written on sake bottle labels but people don’t use it in normal speech. The name refers to the fact that sake should be filtered at least once to be called sake according to the Japanese law.

Word "nihonshu" on the sake bottle's labelNow here is the more complicated part. The bit ‘shu’ (酒) could be also read as ‘sake’, both essentially meaning alcohol. It’s difficult to explain why, without getting into the technicalities of the Japanese language. Anyway, ‘shu’ is usually used in names of sake varieties, but often dropped in English translation.  For example, junmaishu is usually called just junmai, but genshu is used as it is, probably because the main part is quite short.

Origins of sake

It looks like Japanese always loved their sake. Whilst the history of making alcoholic beverages from rice in Japan goes back for more than 2,500 years, the first written accounts of this are from the 3rd century CE.

The Book of Wei, a classic Chinese historical text covering the history of the Wei kingdom in China in the 4-6th centuries, mentioned that Japanese had taste for an alcoholic beverage made of rice and also used it in funerary celebration. “When the chief mourner sheds tears, the rest start singing, dancing and drinking sake”, points out the Book of Wei. 

Book of Wei
By Kidder, J. Edward. Himiko and Japan’s Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai: Archaeology, History, and Mythology. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 2007. 11. Print.Originally from Asahi Shimbunsha. Yamatai-koku e no michi (The road to Yamatai). Fukuoka, 1980., Public Domain

We don’t know in what kind of alcoholic drink people indulged in the 3rd century. Just that they made it from rice. There is a theory that the first sake was made by chewing rice and spitting it into a vessel to ferment. The resulted drink was called kuchikamizake, which means ‘a mouth-chewed alcoholic drink’. If you’ve seen Your Name (Kimi no Na wa) you know what I’m talking about.

However, no historical connection between kuchikamizake and modern sake has been found. While it’s believed that kuchikamizake was made in Japan at the end of Jomon period (1000 BCE), it’s very unlikely that kuchikamizake was the origin of sake due to a significant difference in time, culture and brewing method.

Birth of the modern sake

Using koji mould for sake brewing was mentioned in the Japanese chronicles in the 8th century. But it seems that that time only the Emperor and his court could enjoy this good sake, which was mostly brewed at the imperial court for ceremonial use. Generally, sake that time was consumed as a part of Shinto purification rituals. And this practice still exists.

The food offering to the gods in Shinto shrines, called shinsen, always includes sake. Sake is also used in the traditional Shinto wedding ceremony, in the purification ritual, when the couple drinks sake by taking three sips each from three cups poured by the shrine maiden (miko). And I have already mentioned Kagami-Biraki, the sake barrel breaking ceremony, before.

Sakeware: tokkuri and Choju-giga sake glass and masu.Fast-forward to the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (12th to 16th centuries). During this period, sake brewing was done in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, which developed the brewing techniques used in modern times. Still, back then it was a very different beverage compared to what we drink and enjoy today.

The commercialisation of sake brewing probably started around the end of the 16th century, when independent breweries, unassociated with religious institutions emerged for the first time. Since then, the modern history of sake has started.

If you’re interested in sake history, there is a good series of posts on The Passionate Foodie blog about the history of sake.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for the next chapter about sake ingredients. In the meantime, try some new sake and let me know what you think.



Alex is a London-based sake blogger, podcaster, IWC Sake judge and sake advocate. He is a publisher of the Sugidama Blog website and a host of the Sugidama Podcast. Alex has an International Kikisake-shi (Sake Specialist) qualification from SSI (Sake Service Institute). He sees his mission as expanding the awareness of Japanese sake among as many people as possible and helping the growing community of sake lovers to bring together beautiful Japanese sake and non-Japanese food as a way to build a better understanding between our cultures.

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