Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash
As the globe celebrates World Sake Day, we take a look at a seven fun facts about Japan's famed tipple — a beverage that has charmed fans with its tradition, artisanship and variety.
1. Sake is actually called nihonshu in Japan.
Nihonshu literally means “Japanese liquor.” Sake is actually a term often used to refer to alcohol in general in Japan.
2. It's been around for a very, very long time.
Though it’s called nihonshu, the first record of a sake-like beverage was believed to have been imported from China in the 3rd century. By the 7th century, it was being refined and brewed by Imperial Court, but it was not until the 8th century that koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae) — Japan’s famous fermentation ingredient — was used in the process. Though sadly in decline, there are still over 1,000 sake breweries in Japan.
Photo by yucho-sake 秋津穂 (CC-BY-4.0)
3. It's all about rice polishing.
There are many types of sake, varying in quality and flavor, mostly depending on the percentage of rice grain that's left after it's polished for brewing. Polishing removes bran, leaving the starchy core of rice grain. The less core left behind, the more fragrant and clear the resulting sake — and the more expensive it becomes.
There are five main types of sake (though many more are available). Premium sake is called Daiginjo, with only 50% or less of the grain left, Ginjo and Tokubetsu up to 60% and Honjozo has up to 70%. Junmai has an unspecified amount and, unlike the other four, has no brewer’s alcohol added during the production process.
And the variety doesn’t stop there. The first four types also have their own Junmai versions, too, with no extra added alcohol.
The Ceramic Japan Snowman Sake Set ©Keith Ng
4. It really is OK to drink sake hot or cold.
There are, in fact, at least 10 temperature categories to serve sake, each with its own name. When ordering in a restaurant in Japan, the most popular terms used are “atsukan” for a hot 50 degrees; “nurukan,” for a tepid 40 degrees; “hiya,” which technically means "cool," but is used for room temperature servings; and "reishu" for chilled. Some terms are beautifully poetic, such as “mizore,” or “snowy rain” for a chilled sake served on crushed ice; “hana-hie” meaning “flower chill” served at 10 degrees; and “hinata-kan,” the “sun warmed” 30 degrees.
Sake barrels on display at Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto. Photo by Redd on Unsplash.
5. Not all sake cups are the same.
There are several kinds and sizes of sake drinking vessels, which can be made from porcelain, earthenware, glass and even wood.
The smallest and most common sake cup is the ochoko, which translates to “a little bit.” Just like its name, an ochoko holds around 20-30 ml, which a drinker should be able to knock back in a single gulp. These are the cups that often are decorated with blue circles on the bottom, a pattern that helped professional sommeliers gauge the colour and quality of sake. Today ochoko come in all form of shapes and designs. Our Ceramic Japan Snowman Sake Set has ochoko cups.
Next up is the guinomi, a term possibly derived from the phrase “guigui nomi,” meaning “drink up fast.” There’s no real size limit to a guinomi and the shape and form varies, but usually it holds about double that of an ochoko. Our vintage Kiriko Cut Glasses are guinomi size.
The sakazuki actually means “sake cup,” though really it can only hold only a few sips. A shallow cup that is often wooden and lacquered, it’s usually only used for ceremonies and weddings.
The small shot-like glass is quite a modern addition to sake vessels, but is now one of the most popular ways to serve cold sake.
Last, but not least, is the masu, a square wooden box that is sometimes used beneath a sake glass to collect a deliberate over-pouring and generous extra serving of sake. Masu were originally made to measure dried rice, but over time they became popular as sake cups, particularly on festive occasions.
NiMi Projects' Vintage Kiriko Cut Glass Guinomi Sake Cups. ©Keith Ng
6. Very little is left to waste in sake production
Sake lees, the mash residue byproduct of sake production, still has around 8% alcohol and is remarkably rich in fiber, protein and amino acids. Instead of being thrown away, it’s often recycled and distilled into other beverages, repackaged as an ingredient to add umami to cooking, reprocessed in beauty products, or used to feed livestock.
7. One of Japan’s most popular beauty products was inspired by sake brewers' hands.
The patented magic ingredient of SK-II, a hugely popular brand of skincare products in Asia, has its roots in sake production. According to SK-II, the development of PITERA™, the ingredient that moisturizes skin and helps keep it supple, is derived from sake koji fermentation. Scientists came up with the idea for SKII after noticing that sake brewers, who worked with rice mash on a daily basis, had especially soft and youthful hands.
Sake Set (1968) with a guinomi, designed by Masahiro Mori. GFDL (CC-BY-3.0)