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The New Era of “SAKE”

In 2013, traditional Japanese cuisine “Washoku” was inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO. Along with the subtle flavors of Japanese cuisine, which brings life to its ingredients, Japanese sake has also been receiving high praises. With its assertive yet modest features that harmonize seamlessly with any dish, the use of Japanese sake “Nihonshu” is rapidly spreading among famous hotels and long-established restaurants overseas.


Aiming to produce sake with a pronounced and pleasant flavor, more and more brewers are trying new methods without being bound to the traditional techniques.


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The flavor of sake changes drastically depending on the cup selected. A wine glass is the preferred recipient for fruity and clear acidic flavors. (Photo courtesy of SAKE BAR ShuSaRon)


Sake brewery visits and tastings

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Traditional sake cup used for blind taste tests of Japanese sake to evaluate its quality level, “Ochoko”(small sake cup). The blue ring pattern at the bottom serves to ascertain the color and level of transparency.(Coutesy of SAKE BAR ShuSaRon)

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The chief sake brewer is referred to as a “Toji.” Sake flavor is a product of manual work backed by experience and intuition. (Courtesy of Oharashuzo Co.,Ltd.)

Japan is a country blessed with water, with mountainous areas totaling about 70% of its land. Water from rain and snow has penetrated into the earth over a long period of time, and transformed into soft and palatable spring water and headwaters that are rich in minerals. Even after approximately 2500 years, Japanese sake continues to be produced using such famous waters and the Japanese food staple, rice, as the raw ingredients.


Beginning with “Yamada Nishiki,” referred to as the “King of brewer’s rice,” there are about 90 types of rice grown in Japan that are suitable for making sake. Once a type of rice is carefully selected, it is diligently polished and steamed, its starch is sacharized, and then it is fermented to make Japanese sake. However, looking at the bottles’ labels you will notice that they differ due to subtle differences in the manufacturing process. Gaining popularity abroad, “Junmai-shu” is produced using only rice, water, and malted rice as the raw ingredients, without the addition of any alcohol for fermentation in the manufacturing process. Characterized by a rich full-bodied flavor that comes from the umami taste of rice, this sake is outstanding with meat dishes and cheese as well. Junmai-shu is also available as “Junmai Ginjo-shu” and “Junmai Daiginjo-shu” varieties produced using only good part of rice that is made available after being polished over 40~50% before steaming.

There are over 1500 sake breweries in Japan, with 40,000 to 50,000 different brands.


A variety of factors influence the production of Japanese sake, including differences in the rice and water used as the raw material, the brewer’s individual techniques, regional climate, etc. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of sake connoisseurs who travel to different regions to visit “sake breweries” and compare the taste of sake produced using various manufacturing methods. We are also seeing new alternatives to the traditional breweries with over hundreds of years of history, as they transform into cultural facilities that put on concerts, whether it be classical music or jazz.


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Tourists enjoying a tasting while visiting a sake manufacturer.(Courtesy of S.IMANISHI Co.,Ltd.) The inside of a traditional sake brewery.(Courtesy of SAKE BAR ShuSaRon)

Sake produced using Mozart music

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Left:Mozart is played in the sake brewery to encourage fermentation. Sound pressure is important, which is why speakers have been set up above each tank.
Right:A picture of mozart has been drawn onto the label of this Daiginjo-shu bottle. (Courtesy of Oharashuzo Co.,Ltd.)

In Fukushima Prefecture’s Kitakata City, a sake manufacturer has become the pioneer of a unique project to produce excellent sake with the use of music. This approach is thought to stimulate yeast activity, which influences the fermentation pattern of alcohol.


At the brewery of this sake manufacturer, speakers that play classical music are installed on each barrel for the 30-day fermentation stage using yeast. Songs played are Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and 41, which were selected after comparing sake produced using various genres of music. Playing these songs at 75~120db was found to stimulate yeast activity and create a mellow taste with reduced astringency and bitterness. Such “Musical Sake” production is now spreading nationwide.


Furthermore, the use of new types of yeast that are original to the manufacturer has also spread, instead of using the yeast commonly available. A manufacturer in Nara Prefecture, located east of Kyoto, has extracted the yeast from the petals of a special double cherry blossom native to the area, and created sake that combines the flavor of rice with acidity similar to wine. There are also manufacturers using yeast from other flowers, such as the rhododendron and begonia.



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“Space Sake” is made using yeast which has traveled into space. (Courtesy of Kochi Sake Brewers Association)

A sake manufacturing committee in Kochi Prefecture has started producing “Space Sake,” which is made using yeast that has been sent into space. This special sake created with yeast transported into space via a Russian Soyuz rocket and spent 8 days at a space station has a refined and fruity flavor that sparks the imagination about space.



A mellow and mature taste undersea

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The precursor of sparkling Japanese sake, which has been increasing in popularity, “Suzune” is said to go well with sweets such as waffles. Shipments which amounted to 24,000 at its launch in 1998, now total 1 million bottles.(Courtesy of ICHINOKURA Co.,Ltd.)

Methods for drinking sake have also undergone a drastic change compared to the past where it was either simply chilled or heated. Original drinks such as sake on the rocks with ice, or mixed with soda, and “Mizore-sake” where the sake is transformed into a sherbet state, have been gaining a new fan base. Among others, sparkling sake similar to champagne has seen a boom. Carbon dioxide is naturally produced by fermentation inside the bottle, just like champagne, for a bubbly bittersweet taste enveloped by the delicate flavor of rice. The low alcohol level makes it easy to drink and a favorite among women and those who are new to sake.


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Bottled sake is placed 20 meters undersea for half a year in order to promote ripening. The delicate oscilation caused by the current is said to create a mellower taste.(Courtesy of SAKE BAR ShuSaRon)



Also gaining attention is a technique where bottled Japanese sake is submerged undersea to promote aging. Fifteen domestic sake manufacturers participated in this project which started in December 2013 in the sea of Shizuoka Prefecture, off of Minami Izu, in a quest for mellower tasting sake as a result of the delicate oscilation caused by the current. We are all waiting for the day we can compare the taste of sake submerged undersea for half a year with that of sake stored on land.


(March 2014)

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