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3 April 2016updated 30 Jun 2021 11:57am

Sake: a spirit made from the spit of ancient virgins

Around the solid centre of the rice kernel, mystery builds.

By Nina Caplan

Wine buffs praise its “body” and Catholics revere it as blood; still, nobody has yet credited wine with a heart. That honour belongs to sake, the Japanese liquor whose quality is measured in its closeness to a rice-grain’s starchy centre: its shinpaku, or heart. The more the grain is polished – that is, the more its outer layers are milled away – the better the sake, a liquid evocation of the “less is more” philosophy that seems entirely appropriate to the signature drink of a nation that has produced both the paper house and Marie Kondo.

Around that solid centre, mystery builds. Nothing about sake is quite as it seems. This rice wine is no wine at all – rice is a grain and sake is brewed, like beer – and in fact, “sake” is simply Japanese for alcohol: a local would order nihonshu. As for sake’s status as a national drink, its birthplace was probably the Yangtze Basin of China, in about the 5th millennium BC, though it was the Japanese who refined that early potion into the elegant beverage we know today.

That process, once again, is based on a lack – one as crucial for an alcohol as having a heart is for a human being: a lack of sugar. Without it, yeasts have nothing to transform into alcohol; deprive them of their dinner and we’ll have no drink. In grapes, sugar occurs naturally, and the grains in beer or whisky can be malted into sugariness. Rice cannot be malted without its husk – and husk removal, as we have seen, is the beating heart of sake creation.

Almost seven thousand years ago, a bored or hungry peasant popped a grain of rice in her mouth and noted, as she chewed, an increasing sensation of sweetness: saliva, it turns out, contains an enzyme able to break down rice starch into glucose. How she got around to fermenting the soggy remains of her prehistoric chewing gum I have no idea, but her descendants took to the results with enthusiasm, allocating unmarried girls to help create bijinshu, or “beautiful woman sake”. And so, for many centuries, Japan’s famously delicate national spirit, served in ritualistic fashion to emperors, warriors and Shinto gods, was created from rice and the spit of virgins.

These days, you’ll be relieved to hear, a special mould does the job, but the other essentials have not changed. Water is still the crucial component, as it is in all brews, from beer to whisky. The equivalent of soil for vines, it is believed to convey flavour, distinction, a sense of place, and breweries are as fiercely proud of the streams they turn into sake as an alchemist would be of the base metal from which he created gold.

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The dangerous tradition of heated sake also persists: how speedily and imperceptibly those miniature flasks empty! The subtler flavours of certain sakes are, however, spoiled by heat – and in any case, the precision of chilling may be better suited to the favoured tipple of a country that didn’t open its frontiers to Western sloppiness until 1853.

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In that year, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed in from the United States to “persuade” the Japanese to trade and treat. His success, coupled with the law of unintended consequences, enables me to drink a delightful, surprisingly light cocktail of Bourbon, genmaicha (brown rice tea) and sake at Pidgin, the funky fusion restaurant in Hackney, or sip Ine Mankai, a delicate pink sake made from red rice by a rare female master brewer, at the superb restaurant in Beechworth, Australia, that its chef, Michael Ryan, has aptly named Provenance.

Gunboat diplomacy isn’t usually responsible for spreading love but Perry’s inroads have bequeathed the world the juice of a very particular kind of heart – a liquid hard to make and almost impossible to describe, but excellent in every sense at making its presence felt.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

This article appears in the 30 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail