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Noun: a Japanese alcoholic drink made from rice and usually drunk warm
Firstly, sake is not a rice wine, as this would imply the fermentation of fruit sugars. It is really a strong Japanese rice beer with an alcohol volume as high as 20%.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Legends regarding the genesis of sake are varied, with some suggesting that rice brewing began in China. Others that it was the rise of wet rice cultivation in 3rd Century Japan (the Yayoi Era) gave rise to moulds, which subsequently paved the way for fermentation. However, what is known is that around 300BC, ‘kuchikamino sake’ (chewed sake) was made by people chewing rice and spitting it into collective containers. Not particularly appetizing, I’m sure you’ll agree, but it had to start somewhere. The enzymes from the saliva saccharified the starch, and the repulsive concoction was then fermented. Happily, ‘koji-kin’ (the mould Aspergillus oryzae) was subsequently discovered, and its enzymes affected the conversion of starch to sugar in an altogether far more appealing manner. Rice inoculated with koji-kin becomes ‘kome-koji’ (malt rice); the only difference between this process and the conversion of barley to malted barley is that with barley, the necessary enzymes are naturally already present.
HOW IT'S ALL GOING
It comes as no surprise that the consumption of sake in Japan has been in a steady decline for the last few decades. Once the younger generation moved on to wine, beer and whisky, sake got stuck with a lacklustre image of a drink “brewed by the old men for the old men”. But on our shores, the story is a slightly shinier tale. With the rise in popularity of Japanese whiskies, some customers are now beginning to venture into this ancient brew.