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In the last of three posts based on a Nikkei Style article about the history of sake, we quickly pass through the Japanese “warring states” or Sengoku period (1467 – 1603 AD), where Oda Nobunaga’s party trick was to serve doburoku (unpressed home-brew style sake) to Tokugawa Ieyasu in the lacquered and gold-dusted skulls of his previous enemies. Classy.
Moving swiftly on to the Edo period (1603 – 1868), sake was brewed five times a year in production batches known as:

  • shinshu (新酒, new sake)
  • aishu (間酒, in-between sake)
  • kanmaezake or kanmaesake (寒前酒, pre-cold weather sake)
  • kanshu (寒酒, cold weather sake)
  • haruzake (春酒, spring sake).

Over time, the kanshu produced in winter was recognised as superior in quality to the others. There were also two other factors that led to sake only being brewed in winter: firstly the cold weather made it hard for other microorganisms to spoil the brew, and secondly there were farmers and fishermen available to be seasonal kurabito as they waited for the warmer weather they needed to farm or fish.

The Edo period is also the first time that heat sterilisation of sake was recorded, in the form of sake-daki (酒焚, sake-heating). Sake production was concentrated in the Kansai region, but consumption was highest in the capital Edo, now Tokyo. Sake was shipped in cedar barrels around the coast from Nada and Itami (in today’s Osaka/Kobe region) by boats known as tarukaisen (cask-carrying boats). Boats used to race to bring the year’s first batch of sake to the capital.

The Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) came with a project to strengthen the country and military, which meant levying taxes. Brewing at home was made illegal to make taxing alcohol easier. Sake was previously sold by weight in wooden casks or ceramic jars, but glass bottles were developed around Meiji 19 (1886) and the familiar isshōbin (1.8 L) bottles were developed in Meiji 42 (1909). A national brewing research institution was set up in Meiji 37 (1904) to research and develop scientifically-based brewing – still around today as the National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB).

The Showa period (1926 –  1989) saw further advances in sake brewing such as temperature control and the use of enamelled tanks. However, the outbreak of war in Showa 14 (1939) led to rice controls and restrictions on the polished rice used for brewing, cutting existing brewing volume by half. Problems continued after the war, with the approximately 4,070,000 koku (734,190,084 L) produced in Showa 10 (1935) reduced to 840,000 koku (151,528,157 L) in Showa 20 (1945).

The number of kura also collapsed from over 8,000 in Showa 5 (1930) to around 3,800. Production could not keep up as demobilised soldiers boosted demand, and huge quantities of alcoholic substances such as methyl and low-grade alcohol produced from lees appeared on the black market. The widespread availability of these drinks was a public health concern and also deprived the government of tax revenue, leading to research into producing alcohol from raw materials other than rice. This led to the development of sanzōshu (三増酒, three-fold alcohol) which with the aid of added high-strength alcohol produced at least three times the volume of traditional sake.

[You can see where junmai starts looking attractive here – but keep in mind that modern non-junmai sake has a very restricted quantity of added alcohol which is used to extract aroma and flavour, not to bulk up production.]

The jizake (地酒, local/regional sake) boom that has shaped today’s sake landscape started in Showa 50 (1975), with local breweries starting to sell junmai and honjōzō sake.

The article ends with a look at the present and future, mentioning that sake is no longer just drunk in Japan, with successful and rising exports to over 60 countries. It speculates that sake‘s diversity and versatility are what make it attractive overseas, and claims that more and more sake bars are opening in places like New York and sake is increasingly appearing on high-class restaurant menus.