...Good Sake makes people happy. Such is the beautiful cycle of nature which the Japanese have worshipped and maintained since ancient times. According to the ancient Japanese religion, Shinto, gods live in every part of the natural world, in thunder, rivers, animals… Sake has historically been brewed as a gift to appease these gods and to give thanks for all that they offer humans. In the old imperial city of Kyoto, there is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the god of Sake, Matsuo-sama. This old-fashioned ceremonial Sake is even still brewed today by Shinto priestesses, whose breweries are decorate with miniature shrines for prayers before the start of the work day.
About 2000 years ago, rice cultivation from ancient China was conveyed to Japan. Since then, rice has been a staple food product for the Japanese people. It was even used as currency at one point! In the era of the Shogunate, which lasted up until 150 years ago, the power of lords and samurai was measured with rice. The fact that Sake uses what would otherwise be a food product for something so extravagant and pleasure-oriented even in times of war and food scarcity demonstrates its spiritual importance within Japanese society.
While much sake is made with normal table rice, premium sake is brewed with special rice varieties which have favorable properties for fermentation. Sakamai (sake rice) have up to 25% larger rice grains than table rice,and have a much higher concentration of rice starch, which is the most critical factor for Sake brewing. In addition to the precious starch, rice also contains fats and proteins. These, however, are not desirable in sake production as they can contribute to harsh, overbearing flavors. The starch of good sake rice is concentrated in the center of the grain whereas the other components tend to be concentrated at the edges. Thereby, one can polish away the undesirable components of the rice via mechanical abrasion while leaving the starch-rich center of the grain intact. So as more and more of these fats and proteins are polished away, the finer and more aromatic the resulting Sake will be. While grape variety plays a huge role in determining the flavor profile of wine, rice variety plays less of a direct role. It does, however, influence the character of the fermentation and thereby influences the overall flavor of the sake. There are roughly 60 different varieties of sake rice and this number is constantly growing due to new hybrids. Out of these, the following varieties are the most important within the scope of premium sake:
Yamada Nishiki, grown in the southwestern regions of Hyogo and Hiroshima. The “King of Sake Rice” is the rice variety most commonly used in the annual national competition of Sake. Sake of this rice is fruity, lively and elegant.
Gohyakumangoku, grown in the northwestern regions of Niigata, Ishikawa and Toyama. This rice produces light, dry and very refined Sake.
Omachi, grown in the southwestern regions of Okayama and Hiroshima. This variety creates Sake which present themselves as calm, dry and with excellent acidity.
Miyama Nishiki, grown in the northern regions of Akita, Yamagata, Nagano. This variety yields Sake with diverse tastes and beautiful acidity.
Sake is 80% water, so the quality of water determines the body and overall impression of the end product. In addition to going into the actual product, a huge amount of water is also used for washing, steaming, and cleaning during a production run. Therefore, breweries tend to be located in places with access to an excellent water source. Fortunately, Japan is a wet country. Rain in forests and snow melt are filtered by dense mosses and intricate soil networks and emerge as highly pure mountain water. The ancient village of Nada in Kobe brews its renowned Sake with water from the famous Miyamizu Spring. This particular water is relatively hard and high in phosphorus and magnesium in the general context of Japanese water, and the resulting Sake is strong and well-structured. The Japanese thereby refer to the Sake from Nada / Kobe as “Otoko-Sake,” or, “Men’s Sake.” Coincidentally, the Sake from Fushimi / Kyoto, roughly 80km Eastwards, is brewed with softer water and is known as “Onna-Sake,” or, “Women’s Sake.”