The History of Sake 400 BC-present

The origins of sake can be traced to mainland China as far back as 4800 BC, however the Japanese are credited with the progress over the following centuries. This narrates the evolution from the the period of 400 BC to present day.

Yayoi - Nara periods (400 BC - 794)

Sake production in Japan is believed to have started soon after the arrival of rice cultivation in the third century BC.

The first written mention of an alcoholic beverage use in Japan is recorded in a third century Chinese text: Book of Wei, of the Records of the Three Kingdoms which describes the Japanese pastime of drinking and dancing.

In Japan, the first written mention of sake produced with rice can be found in the Fudoki, the ancient records of provincial culture and daily life,  compiled after 713, and completed over a 20 year period.  Fudoki and Osumikoku Harimakoku present day Kagoshima prefecture describes, Kuchikami-no-sake, and Fudoki from Harimakoku, (present day Hyogo prefecture) mention sake produce from molded rice.

Kuchikami-no-sake or "mouth chew sake", is the ancient form of sake produced by men and women chewing rice and spitting it out into a pot, where natural occurring enzymes in saliva took its course to convert rice starches in fermentable glucose. This practice continues until around the Nara period (710-784), when koji mold arrives from China to replace the former crude fermentation method.

Known as doburoku, and nigori sake, both meaning "cloudy sake" from their appearance, changes to be called simply "sake" during this time.

The same Chinese character, derived from a jug used for the brewing sake, is used in both characters describing "sake" and "medicine". This indicate a close correlation between the two, where the brew was most likely used for medicinal purposes back then. 

Sake is considered a sacred beverage for use in religious functions, as well as for the Imperial Court.

SENGOKU Period (1467 -1603)

During the next 400-600 years, sake began to take shape. Monks, as in many other alcoholic beverage cultures, were the key bearers of the knowledge and power to produce these beverages. The objective was meant to please the Shinto gods, yet by the sixteenth century, breweries were established to please the common man.

Each region began to distinguish itself for the type of rice grown, water used and style of local palate. The geographical location certainly influenced the style produced, weather it was in the colder areas in the north to the subtropical islands in the south. 

Around 1575, one major development occurred that would change the production of sake forever. Polishing rice had begun, which meant that white rice was being used instead of brown. With this change, the flavor and purity increased, and sake was now being treated like tea in social and cultural folds. For the first time, sake and food were married. If the region was on the coast and seafood influenced or inland in the mountains, the predominant cuisine would shape the sake for the rest of time.

Edo Period (1603 - 1868)

In this era, as society grows affluent surrounding the City of Edo (present day Tokyo), flavor preferences start to change towards a lighter and less sweet brew. Breweries employ filtration methods to remove the sweet rice particles left from the mash, leaving a clearer sake. One particular brewery discovers the use of ash or further clarify the sake, which later evolves to the carbon filtration processing widely used today.

With the arrival of the clearer brew, "sake" earns new names, sumisake and seishu, both literally meaning "clearer sake".


Meiji Period (1868 - 1912)

Emperor Meiji

Emperor Meiji

At the 1873 Vienna International Exposition, the Japanese brew finally makes its international debut, introduced under a new name, nihonshu, which literally means "Japanese sake". Until then, Japan had exported sake in limited amounts to Southeast Asia, Europe and Russia. 27,000 breweries dotted the islands and the rise of large producers were established in cities like Kobe and Kyoto. 




Showa period (1926 -1989)

Sake taxation has been based on the volume of genshu, or raw sake, that each brewery produced. So, to maximize output, breweries would dilute their genshu for a higher yield, however this practice comes to a halt in 1938 with the reformation of the law, taxation based on the total volume of sake sold.

In 1943, kyubestu-seido is established, along with the imposition of a new taxation scheduled based on sake grade - the higher the grade, the higher the tax rate.

But in reality, this system is flawed. Well- financed breweries had unfair advantages of earning higher grade ranking for their products through "paying" their way up in the form of taxes. On the other hand, many fine sakes brewed by small breweries in the countryside, but with poor funding, could not afford the high taxes. This their truly premium sake would be categorized low on the grading scale.

This grading system continues for close to 50 years. Any nihonshu could earn higher ranking based on how much a brewery can afford to pay in taxes, which complete disregard of the actual product quality.

An officer giving sake to a soldier before a mission.

An officer giving sake to a soldier before a mission.

War played a huge part in the implementation of fortified sake. During the  Second World War, rice was rationed and the entire sake industry almost collapsed, leaving as few as 3000 breweries in production. The need to replenish the demand for the beverage was provided with a sake that was blended with cheap distilled alcohol. This made the beverage more affordable as well.  The following generations that grew up with fortified sakes became accustomed to a bigger, richer style.


Heisei period (1989 - present)

In 1992, kyubetsu-seido is abolished completely, replaced by a grading scale which better parallels breweries' skill and experience to the quality grading of the sake. The new system classifies sake by seimaibuai or the "rice polish ratio", which indicates the percentage of weight remaining after the exterior of rice kernels is polished (milled), where, the lower the percentage, the higher the grade. This gives birth to the current-day categories as Ginjo and Diaginjo.

Around the same time, a Ginjo boom ensues, attracting female consumers and sake beginners with the elegant aroma ands smooth taste of the "new", modern style. Jizake, which literally means "local" or "regional sake" referring to fine artisan sake. In addition, rare maboroshi-no-sake, or phantom sake from remote artisan breweries, capture headlines to further perpetuate supply shortages.

Today, while sake has appealed to consumers from around the globe, and continues to grow with the ever-popular sushi fanatics, Japan is working to woo younger Japanese back to drinking their national beverage.

We are in a wonderful period in the history of sake with so many styles, ranging from dry, sweet, sparkling, cask strength, on and on, and the current movement from brewers to create high quality products.


Sources: Sake Service Institute, Sake School of America, Sake a Modern Guide