Roots of Japan

Japan's Traditional Alcoholic Beverage

There is a wide variety of traditional alcoholic beverages around the world.

In 4,000 BC, barley beer was being brewed in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and back in 5,000 BC grapes were cultivated for wine making.Mankind's oldest alcoholic beverage is said to be honey wine, or mead, which dates back as far as 14,000 years ago.What these drinks all have in common is that they were discovered by accident.

For example, the discovery of beer was made when the wild yeast in grain porridge began fermenting, and wine came about when fallen grapes started fermenting from the naturally occurring yeast on the skin of the fruit. Honey wine, or mead, was stumbled upon after water and honey were mixed together and began fermenting.Hunter-gathers drank rainwater that had collected in bear-damaged beehives and discovered it to be alcoholic.

Thus, alcohol has a long history. Japan, too, has a traditional alcoholic beverage called “Nihonshu”, or sake.It is always made with rice and the filtration process is called “Kosu”, which means pressed or strained.

So, what is the history of “Nihonshu”?

There are various theories regarding the origins of “Doburoku”, said to be the prototype of “Nihonshu”, which first appears in history around the same time rice began to be cultivated in 3500 BC. It was believed to be a sacred drink, used to pray for a good harvest. Even today, this custom is practiced at “Doburoku festivals” held in various parts of Japan.

Regarded as the simplest form of rice alcohol, “Doburoku” is completely unfiltered and made from rice, malted rice (“koji”), and water. “Nigori-zake” is similar but it is roughly filtered.

So, roughly filtered “Doburoku” becomes “Nigori-zake”, and when the sake lees are also filtered out, this creates “Seishu” or refined “Nihonshu”.
*“Doburoku” or “Nigori-zake” was once called “Seishu” but these days “Seishu” is defined as “Nihonshu” less than 22% alcohol.
“Nigori-zake” goes through a necessary filtration process for it to be classified as “Nihonshu”. However, although “Doburoku” is the original ancient Japanese alcoholic beverage, it isn't filtered so it cannot be classified as “Nihonshu”.

Today, brewing “Nihonshu” takes time and effort and manufacturing it is a delicate and complicated process.So, how did people of ancient times brew “Nihonshu” when they were not nearly as well-equipped as today? According to reliable documents, two different brewing methods appear in 713 and 716.

In this method, men or women of the village would chew uncooked rice and spit it back into a container, setting it aside to ferment for a few days. Once they could smell the aroma of alcohol it was available for all in the village to drink.This is a primitive alcohol brewing method that uses the enzymes found in saliva while being fermented by the wild yeast in the air.Some remote islands of Okinawa continued to make “Kuchikamizake” right up to the 1930's!

Next was, “Koji-no-sake”.According to records, this “Nihonshu” was made using the mold that grew on dried boiled rice (a portable food of the time) after it had become damp.The method of using Koji mold to convert the starch in the rice into glucose is a technique passed down to modern day “Nihonshu”.Another ancient alcoholic beverage called “Nerizake” can still be found today in Izumo, Shimane prefecture and Hakata in Fukuoka prefecture and comes in the form of a soggy paste.Two kinds of “Nihonshu”; “Shiroki (white sake)” and “Kuroki (black sake)” are made from an ancient brewing recipe. They are used at the Imperial Household and offered at Shinto rituals held at Ise Grand Shrine.It is literally white and black alcohol, with the black alcohol getting its color from the ashes of baked grass.Today, making “Nihonshu” without a license is strictly prohibited. Home brewing was allowed, however, until 1899.Recently there has been a dramatic decline in the number of young people drinking “Nihonshu”.
But there are still many breweries out there making delicious “Nihonshu”!

“Nihonshu” is made from water and rice so the flavor varies from region to region.This means there are plenty of fact, around 20,000 varieties! “Nihonshu” is classified into eight types depending on the ingredients and the production method.

1/ Junmai Daiginjo-shu 2/ Junmai Ginjo-shu 3/ Special Junmai-shu 4/Junmai-shu

5/Daiginjo-shu 6/Ginjo-shu 7/Special Honjozo-shu 8/Honjozo-shu

1/ and 5/ are of course the most expensive.

Other categories include “Nihonshudo” and “Sando”.On the “Nihonshudo” or “Sake Meter Value”, a negative value is considered sweet, while “Nihonshu” on the positive side is considered dry.“Sando” or Sake Acidity, does not indicate a sour taste, but rather that a higher acidity will taste more dry and a lower acidity will taste more sweet.Try checking the label on the back of the bottle and use the Sake Meter Value as a guide when buying at a store or drinking at a restaurant. Compare them and find your favorite “Nihonshu”!

Where are the top “Nihonshu” producing regions in Japan?

1 - Hyogo prefecture
An area with many famous breweries such as “Sawanotsuru”, “Kikumasamune” and “Ozeki”.One of Japan's leading Sake Districts is called Nada-Gogō, an area dotted with breweries around Kobe and Nishinomiya. The famous sake rice called “Yamada Nishiki”, the most common ingredient used in brewing sake, originates from Hyogo prefecture.Also, the renowned “Miyamizu” water, essential to good “Nihonshu”, is from Nishinomiya.Naturally high in sodium but very low in iron makes it ideal for sake brewing.

2 - Kyoto Prefecture
Famous brands include “Gekkeikan”, “Kizakura” and “Tamanohikari”.There are some 23 breweries in the Fushimi Sake District, dating back to the beginning of sake brewing in the Yayoi period (10th century BC to 3rd century AD).The water that passes through the Momoyama hills and flows out at the foot of the mountain is said to be from an underground spring. Because of its high quality, there are many legendary tales surrounding this famous mineral water.

3 - Niigata Prefecture
Most people will have probably heard of “Kubota” and “Hakkaisan”, even if they don't like “Nihonshu”.Even overseas, “Jozen Mizunogotoshi” is known as Niigata Prefecture's “Nihonshu”.Niigata also has the highest “Nihonshu” consumption in Japan!Crispy and dry, a taste synonymous with Niigata prefecture.

The “Three major sake-brewing locations” in Japan are “Nada” in Hyogo prefecture in 1st place, “Fushimi” in Kyoto prefecture in 2nd place and “Saijo” in Hiroshima prefecture can be added to the list in 3rd place.“Saijo” is an area blessed with good water like “Nada” and “Fushimi”, but unlike those two areas the water found in “Saijo” is soft water.Previously, it had been said that this kind of water was unfit for making “Nihonshu”, but after extensive research during the Meiji Era they developed their own unique brewing method.The Saijo Sake Matsuri (sake festival) held in October attracts many visitors each year.

Maybe some people don't like “Nihonshu” all that much.In this case, sparkling sake is recommended for “Nihonshu” beginners! “Nihonshu” flavor with a bit of sparkle, it doesn’t have a strong aroma of alcohol and many kinds are incredibly easy to drink.The bottles often come in cute designs so it could make a great present for someone!

There's no doubt that this alcoholic beverage goes well with “washoku”, Japanese food.However, there are many who enjoy imported “Nihonshu” with the local cuisine of their home country!

和What are some unusual food and “Nihonshu” pairings... that are possibly better than “Nihonshu” and “washoku” together?Finding that out is all part of the fun.

It is my opinion and summary. Please acknowledge that there are various opinions.