From the first visit to a Shinto shrine at one month old, to the Buddhist funeral rites, the Japanese are accompanied by sake, also known as nihonshu. Its place in religious life comes from its associations with rice – the food of the gods – and its symbolic purity. Sake is consumed at every major rite-of-passage in a Japanese person’s life.
In the Shinto wedding ritual, the bride and groom seal the marriage by exchanging sake cups and drinking sake. This invokes the gods to intervene to help the couple, and through the sharing of sake, to come closer together and create a bond of friendship. Sake is offered to the family butsudan, the altar that houses the spirits of departed ancestors, and at the feast of O-bon in mid-summer when the spirits return to this world, at family graves. It is proffered to the roadside Buddha statues that dot the countryside, and is a feature both symbolic and practical, at every matsuri festival. The five prefectures from Akita to Ishikawa and Shimane on the coastal line of the Japan Sea have the serious nihonshu drinkers, to the annual tune of more than 20L per person.
Precisely when the art of brewing reached Japanese shores is lost in the mists of time. Tradition ascribes its introduction to immigrants from Korea, at about the end of the 3rd century. They, no doubt, learned the technique from China, where they had been knocking back a fermented rice drink since time immemorial.
The Kojiki record of Ancient Things, however, adds 200 years to that estimate. The general populace started brewing sake in the 12th century, and by the end of the 15th, the districts of Itami in Osaka and Ikeda in Hyogo had established their superiority, a position which, together with the city of Nishinomiya and Kyoto’s Fushimi district, they hold to this day.
Read more about the Birthplace of Sake.
Often termed rice wine in the west, nihonshu is actually made through a fermenting process using grain, somewhat akin to beer making. Key to the sake-making process are good rice, good water and the absolutely magical koji, a dark greenish-yellow, fine powder fermentation agent converting sugar to alcohol that is added to steamed white rice.
From start to finish, the fermentation and refining process takes between one and two months, and the sake is ready to drink as soon as it drips from the barrel. It has an alcohol content of between 15% and 17%. Sake, unlike wine, does not have vintage years – its quality depends upon the conditions under which it is made, and foremost, the skill of the toji sake maker.
Once upon a time, sake was graded by the government into one of four categories: cho-tokkyu, a kind of ‘especially special’ class that is rarely available; tokkyu, special class; ikkyu, first class; and nikyu, second class. John Gauntner writes:
"It is now defunct, and has been since about ’90. It served its purpose but became outdated and even irrelevant. But it is part of the history and culture of sake, and has not yet been totally eradicated from some folks’ minds.
That system was known as the “Kyubetsu Seido,” which simply means “Classification System” and was in existence from 1943 to 1989, from which time it was phased out in favor of the current system. The Kyubetsu Seido was wonderfully simple: all sake was graded as Tokkyu or Special Class (the top), Ikkyu or First Class, or Nikyu or Second Class, which was the default for sake that did not make the cut for First or Special Class.
Note, the seimai buai (degree of rice milling) and whether or not it was junmai or added-alcohol, were irrelevant. With only three terms to know, no vagueness or hidden meanings involved, and with a good degree of reliability, what was the problem with the system? What as the catch? In short: price and excessive homogeneity.
The way it worked was that brewers that wanted their sake officially ranked as First or Special Class would submit samples to the government. They would taste it and asses that yes, it was good enough for that rank, or no it was not. Those that passed the blind tasting assessment of a team of well-trained government sake tasters (great work if you can get it) were permitted to put Ikkyu First Class or Tokkyu Special Class on the label. And, of course, the tax on such ranked products was higher".
Check out Nihonshu a Brief Introduction Part 2 for the current sake rating system.
Please remember this is just a 'basic introduction, part one'. If you already know something about nihonshu, but would like to know more, make sure to read John Gauntner's many in-depth articles here at Foodies Go Local. Here are a few samples of his work to get you hooked on the Nihonshu bug.