What we refer to as sake in English is called nihonshu in Japanese, which literally means, “Japanese liquor”. But how did sake come about and how did it become an internationally recognized beverage? We attempt to answer these questions in this brief history of sake.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origins of sake, but it is believed to have originated in China soon after the arrival of rice cultivation as far back as 1000-500BC (and later brought to Japan). The original and most primitive method of sake production involved villagers chewing rice and spitting it into a communal pot. Enzymes from the saliva would begin the fermentation process. But Japan is really where the art of making sake was refined. Sake production as we know it today really only began in the Nara Period (710-794), when the technique of using koji mold was developed.
Meiji Restoration (1868 – 1912)
The Meiji Restoration is an important period in Japan’s history when the political system of the country was restored. The turn of the century also meant sake-brewing technology became more sophisticated. However, the government increasingly imposed heavy taxes on alcoholic beverages and the number of breweries started to dwindle.
Russo-Japanese War in 1904–1905
The sake industry was making up 30% of Japan’s tax revenue during this time. The government decided to ban homebrewing to increase sake sales, thus increasing tax revenue. It is still illegal to homebrew over 1% alcohol by volume in Japan today.
World War II
To deal with rice shortages, the industry began adding distilled alcohol to increase sake production. While the quality of sake during World War II varied, this method of adding spirit is still used when making sake today – in a much more artisanal way.
Sake breweries began to recover, but beer, wine, and spirits started to become popular in Japan. In the 1960s, beer consumption surpassed sake. So while the quality of sake increased, consumption went down.
While there are less than 2,000 sake breweries in Japan today, this fermented beverage is experiencing a strong resurgence as well as international attention, thanks to the world’s love of Japanese cuisine and the efforts of people like the Sake Samurai.