What Is Japanese Sake?
image courtesy of gurunavi.co.jp
Sake is an English term for what the Japanese call 'nihonshu', literally meaning 'Japanese alcohol'. In Japan, the term 'sake' is a general term for all kinds of alcohol. In the West, it is also called 'rice wine', although the double fermentation process resembles that of beer rather than that of wine. This might have to do with the alcohol percentage sake holds, which is usually around 14-18% so is more similar to that of wine.
Sake is brewed from the no 1. favorite Japanese ingredient, you guessed it: rice. A special type of short-grain rice is milled to remove the outer layers, after which only 50-70% of the original amount remains. From a part of this rice, koji is made. Koji is a mold, made out of steamed rice and Aspergillus oryzae, which is also a mold in itself. Then, the koji is mixed with water and fresh steamed rice, and kneaded (traditionally by hand, a very tiresome business) into a smooth paste. More water and rice are added at three consecutive stages, after which the crude sake is poured into barrels, it sits and ferments for three to four weeks with sake yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). When the time is right, the sake is woken up and gets 'pressed' through filters to seperate the liquids from the unfermented rice parts. It usually undergoes several filteration processes, depending on the maker, but often charcoal is used to refine the colour and flavor.
After that, it is usually pasteurized (quickly heated to kill bacteria) and left to age for various amounts of time. After all this hard work, the sake is poured into bottles and shipped throughout Japan, and the rest of the world.
Japan, being the land of origin for sake, knows an extremely rich sake culture. When you visit Japan you should make sure to try sake at least once or twice. Many (more upscale) restaurants have sake sommeliers that are happy to help you choose.