Given the increasing number of Japanese, Asian and Fusion restaurants on the fine-dinning scene it is virtually essential to do some homework on sake, as ordering confidently is a perk. Though sake is often referred to as a rice wine, the process of making it has more in common with brewing beer.
Once known as the “Drink of the Goods” sake’s true origins are unknown but what we do know is that it has been brewed in Japan over the last two thousand years. Japan first began producing sake on an industrial scale during the Edo period (1603-1868) and during the Meiji period (1868-1912) most breweries that grew and prospered were set up by wealthy landowners. Landowners who grew rice crops would have rice left over at the end of the season and rather than letting these leftovers go to waste, would use them for the production of sake.
Sake production improved dramatically during the 20th century with more advanced machinery. Wooden barrels were replaced with enamel-coated steel tanks, which eliminated the flavour of wood, allowing for the sake’s pure flavour to remain. Though computer-controlled equipment produces more sake, it is in the smaller family owned breweries, producing handcrafted premium sake, we find the exceptional taste of local ingredients and regional styles.
Whichever prefecture the sake comes from, it is made from 4 simple ingredients: water, rice, koji and yeast. Which regional flavour you prefer is personal. From almost transparent to dark amber in colour, with 10%-17% alcohol content, varying sweetness, dryness and fruitiness, very few sake are aged or have vintage. Sake is designed to be drunk within a year or so of its bottling date. Try different kinds of it and make up your own mind. Kanpai!
Akita prefecture is situated in the north eastern part of the Japanese main island of Honshu and with its extensive rice production has been known far and wide as “the rise bowl of Japan” since ancient times and with good reason.
The three first-class rivers that flow through the prefecture mean that the region never lacks for plentiful water and the river basins provide wide and richly fertile land for rice fields.
Akita is also known as the “sake jug”. The essence of Akita’s sake comes from the piled snow and ice of the cold winter, pure and clean water and of course the high quality rice. All are thanks to the wonderful climate and terrain that Akita has been blessed with by nature. In this land is the taste of Akita born.
Along the west coast of Japan’s main island, Niigata prefecture is known for its prowess in industry and as an ecological paradise. With the largest number of sake producers of any prefecture in Japan and a rich, natural environment Niigata is referred to as the “Sake Kingdom of Japan”. While Niigata ranks third in the overall sake production in Japan, it is first in the production of premium sake. The fine water, quality rice, higher than average milling ratio and expertise of the toji, have resulted in what is known as the “Niigata Taste” of sake, which can be summed up as “crisp and dry”. It is less sweet and has a lighter taste than the national average. It contains extract and amino acid and is generally light in colour. The delicate flavour and aroma of this sake contrasts with the full-bodied sweet sake that once dominated mainstream Japan. If one reason has to be given for why Niigata prefecture produces the best sake in the world it would be just one word, “snow”. When this snow melts in the spring, it creates ideal conditions for rice cultivation, in addition to providing incredibly clean, pure water for the brewing process. The rest is inevitable…
“GOOD HARMONY MAKES GOOD SAKE”
The Ito family have been growing rice in Akita for more than 17 generations and according to their records began brewing sake in 1865 when the founder of Akita Seishu, Jyushiro Ito, converted a 150 year old thatched roof estate into the Dewatsuru sake brewery. Five generations later, the brewery is still run by the Ito family. Chairman Tatsuru Ito works closely with his son Yohei, the President, to bring Dewatsuru’s award winning sake to consumers in Japan and throughout the world. The family’s history as rice growers explains the importance they place on using only local, unique rice varieties and the exceptionally soft water together with the heavy snowfalls and winter temperatures, which are ideal for sake brewing, contribute to the naturally smooth taste of the outstanding Dewatsuru sake. This brewery is even certified to produce organic sake, one of only a few such breweries in Japan.
One of the most prominent breweries in the Niigata prefecture, the Ichishima brewery has been owned and operated by the Ichishima family since its founding in 1790. This illustrious clan played an important role in the history of the region. In 1700’s the Ichishimas were one of the top five land owning families in Japan and legend has it that one could walk the 40 miles from the brewery to Niigata city without leaving Ichishima land. The brewery still draws on its lengthy history and access to local ingredients to produce some of the highest quality sake in the region known for premium production. The brewery is also proud to be one of the first to employ female brewery workers and in fact is known in the industry for having the first ever licensed female toji. Balancing tradition with open mindedness, Ichishima Shuzo has been able to produce consistently high quality sake and to win many gold medals, nationally and internationally.