Sake, Sake, Sake… What is it?

Nothing says date night, like going out for sushi, and ordering some sake! With so many sushi restaurants popping up all over town, and liquor stores being able to order anything these days, it’s easy to enjoy a nice cup of sake with dinner. Sake, or rice wine, is an alcoholic beverage that originated in Japan, and was often served during religious ceremonies, court festivals, and drinking games. Sake is made by fermenting rice through a brewing process that is actually more similar to beer than wine.

Background of Sake

The brewing process for sake starts with the rice starches being transformed into sugars, which then ferment into alcohol. The conversion from starch to sugar, and then from sugar to alcohol occurs in two separate phases when brewing beer, but when sake brews, these two phases occur simultaneously.

The precise origin of sake is a bit blurry, but the earliest documentation of the Japanese drinking and dancing was in a 3rd century Chinese text. Then around the 8th century, alcohol is mentioned multiple times in the kōjiki, Japan’s first written history book.  The sake we drink today was believed to have started during this time in the Nara period (710-794), when Japanese discovered koji, a mold that is added to the rice to begin fermentation. This technique of adding the mold to the rice spread throughout Japan, but the government took control of the production of sake. It wasn’t until the 10th century, when temples and shrines began to brew sake, and they became the main centers of production for the next 500 years.

By the 19th century, laws were written that allowed anyone in Japan to start and operate their own sake brewery. In a year, over 30,000 breweries opened in Japan, but the government quickly increased taxes on sake producers, and many were forced to shut down.  Only several family-owned breweries survived and still exist today.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, brewing technology and equipment lead to huge increases in production of sake, but not just in Japan.  Less than 2,000 sake breweries actually exist in Japan today. Sake breweries have become more popularity in other places, such as North and South America, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

Popularity in America

In 2000, decent sake finally started making its way into major metropolitan areas such as New York City and San Francisco.  By 2017, sake sales had grown by 8% annually since 1994. I think we can agree that with good food, comes good drinks. Today, as more people start to become more food and drink conscious, they are willing to pay more money for fresh ingredients in quality food and drinks.  About 89% of Japanese sake exported to the U.S. is premium, which has helped initiate sake acceptance.

If we look at the paths of other fermented drinks and food, we can see there is a cultural interest with young Americans wanting to take on food fermentation.  Craft brewers, distillers and kombucha makers have paved the path and we can agree, the next frontier will be artisanal sake. I am sure we can expect to see craft sake breweries be the next trend in the beverage world. Next time you are out, and want to impress your friends, try ordering a cocktail with sake as the base.

Can you get drunk on it?

Just like beer and wine, the alcohol content can differ between the different types of sakes.  Undiluted premium sake can contain up to 18-20% ABV (alcohol by volume), but is often dropped to about 15% ABV by diluting with water prior to bottling.

So, once you get the chance to either go out for sushi, or try buying it for a party you are hosting, what should be the proper drinking etiquette for sake? First, never drink sake alone, it’s the most basic rule of drinking etiquette in Japan. Secondly, never pour your own glass, or let someone pour their own. Then, once everyone has a poured cup, you may raise your cup and say, “Kanpai!” Which basically means “bottoms up!”

You might wonder, at what temperature should sake be served? Sake is served in a gently warmed in a tall bottle called a tokkuri and sipped from a small porcelain cup called a sakazuki. As with wine, the recommended serving temperature of sake varies greatly by type. The style and season should also help determine the temperature at which it should be enjoyed.

There is a slight rule of thumb, that a higher-grade sake is actually served at room temperature to enjoy all the delicious flavors, while lower-grade is served warm, to hide the impurities of the taste. But, no matter the temperature of your sake, take your time, sip by sip, and enjoy this Japanese beverage.

Nutritional Benefits

These days everyone is looking to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and when your beverage of choice has been scientifically proven to contribute to long-term health benefits, you are going to feel better about consuming it. Of course, when consumed in moderation, and paired with food that is high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as sushi, according to www.SakeTalk.com, sake can have the following nutritional benefits:

Skin improvements: In Japan, sake has been used as a skin toner for centuries. Basically, sake raises your body temperature for a longer period of time than other alcohol types. Therefore, creating more blood flow in the skin, circulating nutrients all around the body, providing healthier, more radiant skin. So, if you have dry patchy skin, or annoying brown sunspots, may we suggest taking a bath with sake to lock in moisture, and keep your skin radiant and smooth. The next time you take a bath, try stirring in three cups of sake into the tub. Relax for at least ten minutes and enjoy your soak.

Reducing Cancer Risks: Sake is quite high in amino acids, which support cells structure, help store nutrients, and essentially make sure everything runs smoothly. They have been proven to slow down tumor growths and reduce the risks of certain kinds of cancer.

Improve your Immune System: One of the amino acid compounds found in the highest concentrations in sake is selenium. Selenium is a mineral that naturally appears in water and some foods, and offers a wide range of health benefits. It has attracted the attention of people because of its antioxidant properties, which protect cells from damage. In addition to reducing cancer risks, it can help prevent progressive diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and can give a general boost to the immune system.

Easy on your Tummy: Compared to most alcoholic beverages, sake has very low amounts of acids and sulfites, which are responsible for the upset stomach you can get with a hangover the next day. Sake is a third lower in acidity than wines. Most likely the reason why you won’t get that terrible “sour stomach” or reflux after enjoying a glass. When choosing to drink premium sake, such as TY KU, it has been known to be virtually hangover-free, because the elements causing hangovers are almost entirely milled out during the brewing process. So, if other alcohols upset your stomach or give your reflux, give sake a try!

Good News it’s Gluten-free: Guess what?! Rice contains absolutely no gluten, so unlike beer, sake is 100% gluten free. That means this date night can be a gluten-free date night, if you pair your sushi with some sake!

Improved Bone Healthy: From the enzyme inhibitors found in koji, (the ingredient used to help yeast ferment rice in sake), and the amino acids found in sake, drinking sake can contribute to strengthening of skeletal muscles, and prevent bone disorders, such as osteoporosis.

Additionally, other studies suggest sake can help prevent diabetes and assists with weight loss. Again though, we want to reiterate, while sake has been scientifically proven to contribute to long-term health benefits, please drink sake in moderation.

So, on the next date night, go out for sushi, order a bottle, pour a cup for your date or friend, and enjoy this gift from the Japanese! Kanpai!

Here at hmmwhat2drink.com, we strive for a commitment to excellence. We enjoy our beers, spirits, and specialty drinks as much as the next, but we urge you to drink responsibly. These articles and recipes are intended for adults and as such, should be used in the proper context. So have fun, relax, but do it responsibly in your home or with a designated driver. If you have any suggestions please email us at hmmwhat2drink@gmail.com.

HmmWhat2Drink.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.