Traditional Culture of Japan - Portal site of traditional crafts and culture

Japanese sake, and brewed liquors in general

 

Sake, the alcoholic drink made from rice by a uniquely Japanese method, is actually known as Nihon-shu in Japanese. Among the various kinds of alcoholic drinks, sake is categorized as brewed liquor (jōzō-shu).

 

Alcoholic beverages can be divided into three groups: brewed liquors, distilled liquors (spirits), and blended liquors. It's important to understand the difference between these three at the outset.

 

  The difference between brewed liquors, distilled liquors, and blended liquors
Brewed liquors are those produced by fermenting the raw ingredients. Wine, beer, and sake are all included in this category.

 

With wine, it is grapes that are fermented. Grapes contain a large amount of sugar, and this grape sugar is converted to alcohol by the fermentation process.

 

Beer is brewed from barley. Barley contains starch, and this must first be converted to sugar. This is achieved by adding malt. The sugar produced at this point is called maltose. Yeast is then added in order to ferment the maltose and turn it into alcohol.

 

In contrast to wine and beer, sake is made from rice. Since rice does not contain sugar, the starch in the rice has to be converted to sugar, just as in the case of beer. For this purpose, a microorganism known as kōji-kin is introduced to convert the starch to grape sugar. Subsequently, yeast is used to turn the grape sugar into alcohol.

 

Looked at in this way, sake does somewhat resemble beer. People who enjoy brewed alcoholic beverages like wine and beer are very likely to enjoy drinking sake, since it too is produced by a brewing process.

 

Fermentation is also involved in producing spirits, but at the final stage the liquor is distilled. In distillation, the liquid mixture is heated to cause evaporation, and then cooled to bring about condensation of the final product. Spirits include the likes of whiskey, brandy, and vodka.

 

An existing alcoholic beverage may have added sugar, flavorings, or fruit added to produce a blended liquor. Liqueurs are a well-known example of this type of drink.

 

  Brewing with cereal grains
Brewed liquors made from rice or other cereal grains are called grain liquors. As mentioned previously, there is no grape sugar in rice. For this reason, simply adding yeast, as in winemaking, will not produce alcohol. Making grain liquors is therefore somewhat more complicated.

 

Furthermore, in the case of sake, the conversion of starch to grape sugar and the conversion of grape sugar to alcohol both take place in the same vat. For this reason, the flavor of the sake can be affected by even small variations in conditions. A consequence of this method of production is that the criteria for appraising the flavor of sake are different from those applied to other alcoholic beverages.

 

With wine, factors such as the origin of the grapes and the length of time of aging are important. However, these are not important considerations in judging sake.

 

Rather, it is the producer of the sake that is emphasized. This is because, even using exactly the same rice, and making sake under the same conditions, the flavor of the final product will vary greatly depending on who made it.

 

So a high degree of technical skill is required in producing sake. That’s understandable, because it involves conversion to grape sugar of a raw ingredient that contains no sugar, and then producing alcohol from that grape sugar.

 

Alcoholic drinks have been items of indulgence throughout history. However, in Japan grapes and barley are not produced on a large scale, and rice is the staple food. Sake was the result of thinking about how rice, the staple food of Japan, could be used somehow to make an alcoholic beverage.


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