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Some Sake History; Etymology

# 33

July 2002

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #33
July 1, 2002


-Itami: A bit of sake history
-Ginjo-shu Etymology
-Good sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information



As sake becomes more recognized not only as a world-class beverage, but also as an enjoyable topic of conversation and study, it can be fun to look at its interesting and culturally rich history.

Historically, the Nada district of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture is generally perceived historically as the most significant sake-brewing region in Japan. More than one-third of all the sake produced in the galaxy comes from this area. But even Nada was once the young upstart of the sake brewing world, having taken the crown from its West-Japan neighbor, Itami.

At the end of the 17th century, Edo (the old name for Tokyo) had a population of one million, about half of which were samurai and their attendants. Folks like that make for a thirsty lot, and Edo was quite the consumer market for sake.

Western Japan, more specifically Osaka, Hyogo and Okayama, supplied Edo with most of their sake. Almost all of this came from 12 villages that came to be known as "Edo-tsumi Junigo" These villages included modern-day Ikeda, Amagasaki, Sakai, Itami, Nishinomiya and Nada.

But among these, it was Itami that rose to the top. One reason was their technical prowess. It is said that sake as we know it today was first made in Itami. It was in Itami in 1578 that sake was first filtered enough to be totally clear. This made it fine enough to the sake of choice for the Shogun.

In 1804, the population of Itami was but 8200, but five percent of the 2200 households were sake brewers. Include all the craftsmen needed to make the wooden tanks and casks, the bamboo bindings and tools, the straw coverings and all the other business aspects of brewing sake for Edo, and it is clear that the entire town's economy was focused on Edo-tsumi sake.

Several of today's largest brewers were originally Itami brewers, including Kenbishi, Otokoyama, and Shirayuki.

At their peak, brewers in Itami shipped 280,000 taru (72 liter casks) to Edo by Taru-kaisen (special ships used for carrying sake to Edo from Western Japan).  That is more than 20 million liters. That was 1804. Wowsers.

But things slowly began to decline from there. Itami began to rest on its laurels. Over the next few decades, production declined. By 1853, Itami was producing but 30 percent of their peak. The baton had pretty much been handed off to the region surrounding Nada in the city of Kobe, a strip of five fishing villages where sakagura had begun popping up since the early 1700s. Why Nada? In short, technology, water, and a seaport.

Nada has six rivers that flow down from Mt. Rokko that were used to drive waterwheels used in rice milling. Using these, they were able to mill 2400 kilograms of rice a day. Back in Itami, they were using "ashifumi seimai," stomping on the rice to mill it. This dubious method yielded but 23 kilos per person per day.

Other changes to the brewing process were effected by Nada brewers. A smaller ratio of koji to straight rice (down to the current ration of about 30%) and smaller yeast starter batches too came to be common practice at this time. These combined to increase both quality and yields.

Also, Nada has some of the best sake brewing water in Japan, the famous "Miyamizu," which rises up in wells after filtering through down through Mt. Rokko. This point actually enticed many well known brewers to move operations from Itami and other places into Nada.

And finally, it was much easier to load the sake onto the Edo-bound ships from Nada than it was from land-locked Itami. 

Many of the most storied names in the business set up shop in Nada. Consider the Kano family, who founded Sakura Masamune (the 7th largest brewer today) in 1659. A branch of the family broke off and founded Hakutsuru (the second largest brewer today) in 1759. Not to be overlooked is Osakaya Choubei, a dried herring wholesaler that in 1711 decided to try their hand at sake brewing in Nada. Today they are known as Ozeki.

Today, almost nothing remains of the Itami legacy. One large brewer, Shirayuki, held fast and continues to brew there today. Beyond that are two small kura, Otegara and Oimatsu. Although it is no longer a significant brewing region, Itami's place in sake brewing history is quite secure.



One of the biggest barriers to learning about sake is the terminology used to define the various grades. It is not simply a matter of learning the language, as even the average Japanese person more often than not does not know specifically to what the terminology refers. These terms came about not all at once, the result of a carefully planned grading scheme as was the case for wine, but rather haphazardly and piecemeal, one term at a time, in response to market changes.

For example, until World War II, all sake was made with only rice, and no additives. There was no need to call it junmaishu, today's term for such sake, as there was nothing else then. It is only when sake came to be adulterated with liberal amounts of distilled alcohol that a term indicating "rice only sake" became needed.

Same with the term honjozo. It literally indicates sake made by the "original brewing method," which it is not, by the way, as a small amount of distilled alcohol is indeed added. But the term arose in response to market changes, as a way to tell the public, "we are not adding tons of pure alcohol, sugar and acids to increase yields, just a tad of alcohol, and only as a valid brewing tool to pull out flavors and fragrances that would be otherwise lost." Fair enough, but no less easy to  grasp.

Even more vague and less understood it the commonly  bounced around term ginjo-shu. It has come to represent good sake in general. In that we can trust, but why the word ginjo? What does it mean, and where did it come from?

Such sake has only been widely available on the market for just over 30 years. But the word ginjo has been around much, much longer.

From an etymological viewpoint, the gin of ginjo is taken from the word ginmi, which means "to carefully select." The jo part means "to brew." So, the implication is "to brew from carefully selected materials."

Today, as many readers know, ginjo-shu refers to sake brewed with rice milled to remove at least the outer 40 percent of the grains, grinding away proteins and fats, and leaving fermentable starches behind. This, combined with great effort and labor at every step of the process, leads to the wonderfully enjoyable sake we know as ginjo-shu.

But originally, the term had no such strict definitions. It first arose in referring to sake brewed in very small amounts using very carefully selected materials and methods, brewed for tasting competitions in the Meiji Era. In official media, the term ginjo-shu first appeared in 1906 in a publication called the "Jozokyokaishi", or "History of the Brewing World."

But the term ginjo-shu stayed internal to the industry for several decades; no product was sold using that term until 1947, when a small brewer in Chiba making a sake called Kinmon Fusa Masamune first used it. (They are still around today, by the way.) Within about ten years, there were 20 companies, including well-known Haku Botan of Hiroshima and Chiyo no Sono of Kumamoto *attempting* to market sake under the term ginjo-shu.

There was just one problem: no one was drinking it. They couldn't sell the stuff. It was just too expensive to continue as a viable product. In the end, these pioneering brewers ended up mixing the fruit of their intense efforts back into their regular sake. Ouch.

It was not until the early 1980s that ginjo-shu became widely available on the market, and that a significant number of brewers began to produce such extravagant sake. It was soon after that ginjo-shu came to be defined by law.

It was also about then that daiginjo-shu, a sub-division of ginjo-shu calling for even more highly milled rice, came into legal being as well. There is also the term "chuginjo," and while not legally defined or official, it is seen sometimes to refer to sake better than just ginjo but not quite as good as daigino. (Confused yet?)

The folly of all this obfuscation is that in the end, sake is usually fairly priced, and you will generally get what you pay for. The current grading system has its faults, not the least of which is that the terms are not very descriptive. But they do have an interesting logic to them, provided you look at the history of sake.



--- Tenju (Akita Prefecture)
The Tenju kura sits near the north foothills of famous Mt. Chokai in Akita, the fourth-largest brewing region of Japan. All Tenju sake has a wonderful thread of consistency running through it, being light and airy on top but with a solid underpinning of well-constructed rice-based flavor.

Of special note is their Chokai no Shizuku product. Chokai is a sub-brand name they use for a daiginjo product, the shizuku implies it is drip-pressed, with no pressure applied to the bags holding the moromi. While it is quite hard to find, and much more expensive (about \10,000 for a 1.8 liter bottle) than I usually advocate for paying for sake, it is indeed exquisite.

--- Tedorigawa (Ishikawa)
A solid kura producing a fairly wide range of great products. Their lower grades are simple and clean, their higher ginjo more elegant, and often fruity and spicy. They produce a rich and gamy and thoroughly enjoyable yamahai-shikomi sake as well.

From a second kura, this company also brews another brand called Yoshida-gura. This daiginjo is indeed one of the better values around; the sake is mellow and balanced, way beyond what the price tag would lead one to think.

--- Kikuhime (Ishikawa)
Kikuhime is an amazing kura in that they use nothing but the best Yamada Nishiki rice (Hyogo Prefecture, Yoshikawa Township, Special A designated paddies) for everything - from their cheapest sake to their most expensive. The Yamada Nishiki they use here amounts to a quarter of all the rice grown in Yoshikawa, and a 30th of all the Yamada Nishiki grown in Japan! Incredible.

But it pays off. Their sake is sterling, as is the reputation, and it sells well. They produce enough that it is not that hard to find. Their junmai-shu and lower ginjo-shu products are balanced and enjoyable, and their yamahai-shikomi sake is wonderfully heavy and earthy. Their higher grades (hightest being Gin and Kuro-Gin) are quite expensive but finely-wrought expressions of perfect brewing with excellent rice.

My favorite would be a Daiginjo called BY, which stands for Brewing Year. It is a daiginjo that has been aged one year, and the flavors are in incredible harmony, with all the flavors and aromas smoothed and buffed into each other. It is again more than I would usually advocate paying for a bottle (same price as Chokai no Shizuku above), but I would probably break my own rules on this one.


Sake events and other miscellany...

Sake World Website Updated
The Sake World website at (don't forget that hyphen!) has been updated. Many of my Japan Times articles from the past years have been archived, providing further reading for those that are interested.

July is easily one of the quietest months of the year in the sake brewing calendar year. As such, there is a dearth of sake events during this time. Things will certainly pick up in August. But all is not lost, there is yet a couple of events happening!

--- July 6, 2002 (in Japanese)
Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, July 6, from 6:30 until the last train at Shin-Romantei in Yotsuya Yanagicho (a ten minute walk from Akebono-bashi station on the Shinjuku Line, or two minutes walk from Ushi-gome Yanagicho station on the O-edo line). There will be a lecture in Japanese with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. The cost is 6000 yen. Note, this is the 50th "Shimin Kouza" (very loosely translated as "Sake Seminars for the Common Folk," so to speak) seminar by Matsuzaki Sensei, and as such there will be a bit more "festivities" than usual, and certainly some special sake. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me at, or Matsuzaki-sensei directly at

--- July 27, 2002
On the evening of Saturday, July 27 Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and I will be hosting another sake and Japanese pottery seminar, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu and Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. The sake topic will either be sake-brewing yeast or the traditional brewing guilds of the sake world. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. Participation is limited to 40. The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and a hopefully enlightening lecture with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.

Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.


Sake books:

The Sake Companion, published by Running Press
A hardbound, well designed book, The Sake Companion approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch. Unlike my first book, The Sake Handbook, this new volume covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan.  Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with numerical rankings and an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember. (say again: A good high acidity may increase the sense of dryness of a sake by lightening and spreading out the flavor. A low acid content, on the other hand, can help a sake to feel fuller and heavier, and increase a sense of sweetness.

Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.

The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).

Also worth searching for:
-The Sake Handbook (John Gauntner): A bit more technical but with a listing of 50 sake pubs in Tokyo.

-Sake: Pure and Simple (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.

-Sake, An Insider's Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura (Rikyubai in Osaka) in Japan.

-Sake: A Drinker's Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.


Home-Brewing Sake
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.

Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.

Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing:, and see their site at

To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word "subscribe" without the quotes to . To unsubscribe, send the word "unsubscribe", without the quotes, to For a list of other useful commands, send the word "help", less the quotes, to Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to


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Publication Information
Sake World is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.

NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice below.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner,
Copyright 2002 Sake World


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