Considered ‘the drink of the gods’ by the Japanese, nihonshu sake, a fermented Japanese alcoholic beverage, has become an important symbol of Japanese culture. Made from rice, water, ‘koji-kin’ (a mould which secretes enzymes) and yeast, sake is generally served during a meal.
Japanese alcoholic drinks – a new trend?
The choice of traditional Japanese alcoholic drinks is rich and varied. They are a result of over a thousand years of experiments and cultural exchanges with Japan’s neighbouring countries. Like its refined, high quality gastronomy, Japan has developed its own distinctive drinks culture. Enriched over the centuries, it has become one of the symbols of national identity.
However, for a long time Japanese alcoholic drinks (including nihonshu sake) remained unknown in Europe, unlike Japanese cuisine, which has been very popular for a number of years. Sushi, sashimi, teppanyaki and yakitori are no longer considered particularly exotic by Europeans!
For a long time the Japanese people, more reserved than other nations, were quite happy to keep their ‘liquid treasure’ to themselves. But today this unusual, subtle alcoholic drink has become widespread in Europe, even in remote regions. Why such a sudden passion for this drink? This is due to the growing number of high quality Japanese restaurants found in cities and the emergence of a new generation of consumers, seeking authentic gastronomic experiences. Another factor that needs to be taken into account is that, as in France, Japan’s level of alcohol consumption is falling. Producers are having to focus more on tradition and the creation of luxury products, which they are now quick to offer on the export market.
Nihonshu sake, the national alcoholic drink, par excellence
Although the Japanese have always considered nihonshu sake as part of their country’s culture (‘nihonshu’ means ‘Japanese alcohol/wine’), it was only officially recognised as the National Alcoholic Drink (‘Koksushu’) in 2012. This public designation has a two-fold significance:
- it emphasizes the importance of this alcoholic drink in the country’s economy and culture, while also acknowledging the often laborious work of the producers.
- it underlines the unique character of this beverage, thus facilitating its international distribution.
Rice, water... and sake
Nihonshu sake is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. The types of rice used are different to those grown for eating. They are cultivated in specific areas that are acknowledged for their quality, but often a long way from where the sake is actually brewed. The many different rice types are classified according to a strict official system.
Why is there such strict control? The final characteristics of the sake depend on three key factors:
- the quality of the rice and its polishing ratio
- the quality of the water
- the brewer’s expertise
Since rice keeps for a long time and can be transported over long distances, whereas water only remains fresh for a short period of time, the breweries tend to be near to good quality sources of water. The rice may be transported from very far away, with the most reputable coming from the regions of Hyogo, Okayama and Niigata. These produce several different varieties of rice, including: Yamada Nishiki, Gohyaku-mangoku and Miyama Nishiki. Although certain nihonshu sakes can be vintage-dated, this is still very rare. However, the majority of sakes have the brewing date on the bottle. This highlights a system that places greater value on certain areas and vintages, and which is just as complex as those for wine.