Sake has not been around forever, and at one point in time, they had to come up with a name for this new stuff. Hooch, da good stuff, giggly juice . . . It is likely that the Japanese equivalents of these have all been used, but there must have been some point when the word “sake” itself came into being.
The character for sake is said to have come from a picture of a jar. The water radical on the left side indicates that a liquid would be involved. As the character itself came from Chinese, eventually a Japanese reading came to be associated with it.
There are four current theories on the etymology of the word sake itself. One is that sake is taken from sakae-mizu. The key root here is sakaeru, which means to prosper, to flourish or to thrive. Seeing how this might relate is almost a no-brainer; we all seem to flourish and thrive a bit when drinking a glass of good sake or two. The “sakae-mizu” eventually became “sakae” and later “sakei” before becoming truncated into its present version, “sake.”
The second possible source for the word sake is from sakae-no-ki. Although the sakaeru root here is the same, the “ki” is taken from o-miki. O-miki is part of a Shinto rite in which a small amount of sake is drunk in a prayerful act of symbolic unification with the gods. This ceremony is performed with a Shinto priest in a shrine using unique white porcelain tokkuri (called miki-dokkuri) and cups that can be seen on the altars of shrines everywhere.
In the word o-miki, the reading “ki” is assigned to the character for sake. As such, the final meaning would again be akin to “the sake that helps one prosper,” but perhaps this time there is a bit more of a religious association. Linguistically, sakae-no-ki changed to sakae-no-ke, sakae-ke and sake-ke before arriving at the vernacular manifestation we use today.
The next theory is a bit closer to daily life. This theory suggests that “sake” came from the word sakeru, which means to avoid. Sake was believed to help one avoid catching colds, hence the association. (Curiously, sake is also believed to help cure colds, when drunk hot and mixed with an egg, a concoction called tamago-zake. Any excuse will do for some, I guess.)
Finally, long ago, sake was known as kushi. Originally kushi meant something mysterious or strange. Before proper fermentation existed, folks would eat the fruit that had dropped into a hollow tree or stone and had naturally fermented. Although the alcohol content was low, they felt a little bit, well, kushi. “Kushi no Kami” refers to the god of sake.
Wherever the word has come from, it is sake today. Indeed, it can help us flourish, keep us healthy and give us religion. And we all need to feel a little bit kushi sometimes.
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Hatsumago (Yamagata Prefecture)
Seimai-buai: 58 percent
Hatsumago is a name to remember for several reasons. For one, the name is lovely: first grandchild. Next, this brewery has incredible technical prowess and consistency. Hatsumago has won a gold prize in the yearly New Sake Tasting Competitions nine out of the last 10 years. Only Gekkeikan has matched that. Doing it once is impressive; nine out of 10 years is amazing.
The brewery is fairly large, and it brews a wide range of sake, most of which is solid and well-crafted rather than wild or ostentatious. This honjozo is fairly dry and clean, but with layers of flavor unfolding with time. It’s excellent gently warmed, too.
There are still a few seats open for the sake and pottery seminar Feb. 17 with Rob Yellin. Send me an e-mail for details if you are interested.