Strange title for an article on Sake isn’t it? So why? ‘Spit’ is where the story of Sake starts and ‘polish’ is what many Sake enthusiasts, wrongly in my view, consider the most important aspect of a Sake.
I would imagine that many alcoholic beverages can be traced back to ‘accidents’. It’s not difficult to imagine that someone picked some grapes, for some reason didn’t eat them all, threw them fairly hard into a container, some juice leaked out, ambient yeast caused fermentation, someone saw the fizzing liquid (due to the carbon dioxide that is one of the by-products of fermentation), decided to drink some and enjoyed the intoxicating effect (unlikely to have enjoyed the taste!). We now call this wine.
I don’t have much trouble believing that. The story with Sake, however, is a little harder to swallow (excuse the pun). Someone was chewing on some rice, for some reason spat it out, the amylase in that person’s saliva helped the starch in the rice convert into sugar which was then fermented by ambient yeast. What is a little more challenging to understand is what prompted someone to look at the result and find a reason to eat/drink it. Whatever the reasons, this is how Sake was first made. It even has a name; ‘Kuchikami no Sake 口噛みの酒’ (mouth-chewing Sake).
Being a wine, Sake and Spirits educator, I make a living spoiling good stories with the truth. I’m not minded to look further into Kuchikami no Sake so let’s leave that as the ‘spit’ part of this article.
What about ‘polish’? The outer layers of rice (the bran), if left on the rice and fermented into Sake (which they sometimes are, it is called ‘Genmai 玄米’), would produce a Sake which is brown in colour and very savoury in its nature. It was in the very early stages of Sake production that producers realised that polishing away those outer layers gave a less savoury result (it never ceases to amaze me how so much was tried and achieved with ‘trial and error’ in the early years of Sake production when the science to explain the reasons for success had yet to be explained). That was about the limit of the reason for doing it and they will have only felt the need, and had the equipment, to polish away about 10% (the ‘polishing rate’ often stated on the label refers to the percentage by weight of how much rice is left behind after polishing so the polishing rate of the rice in those early years would have been about 90%).
Nowadays, having progressed from manual polishing with the large equivalent of a mortar and pestle through the ‘mechanical’ version of a mortar and pestle driven by a water wheel to today’s vertical polishing machines, rice can be more highly polished and go beyond removing savoury to actually creating elegant characters like fruity and floral notes. But rice polishing alone will not give the strong sense of fruit that Ginjo drinkers expect.
And this is where the views of myself and some Sake enthusiasts may diverge as I take the view that all that rice polishing really does is impact the style of the Sake. This is largely because removal of the outer layers reduces protein and lipids that can create savoury flavours and it reduces nutrients available to the yeast, thus straining the yeast which can create fruity characters. More highly polished rice (so the numerical value of the polishing rate is smaller as more of the outer layers have been polished away) will result in a different style of Sake. It doesn’t make it better, it just makes it different and there are other ways to achieve similar, and in some cases even more striking, results.
The production costs of Sake using more highly polished rice is higher, not just because of the cost of more polishing but several other steps in the process need to be done more carefully with more highly polished rice. We will look more at these steps and the relevance of rice polishing to those steps in future articles.
In the meantime, as I finish writing this article while sitting on a bullet train travelling from Tokyo to Himeji, remember that it all started with spit and polish.