How to Make Sake and Other Rice Spirits

Rice has been used to make various alcoholic beverages all over the world. Learn how to make sake using only pristine rice.


| October 16, 2013



The Drunken Botanist

Learn how plants are made into alcohol and the history behind it in “The Drunken Botanist.”

Cover Courtesy Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

In The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart explores the dizzying array of herbs, flowers and plants that humans have transformed into alcohol over the centuries. With more than fifty drink recipes and growing tips for gardeners, this concoction of biology, chemistry, history and mixology will make you the most popular guest at any cocktail party. In this excerpt taken from part one, “The Classics,” learn how to make sake with the ancient plant — rice.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Drunken Botanist.

For such an ancient and important plant, rice has not figured prominently in the tastes of American drinkers. In 1896, the New York Times called sake a “vile rice wine” and said that it had a “markedly poisonous effect” on native Hawaiians, who were choosing it over “less unwholesome California wines.” Even today, we tend to think of sake as a miserable hot, sour, yeasty drink we once tasted at the urging of an aunt who took us to a Japanese restaurant in Kansas City. But making a decision about sake based on a bad memory of that cheap, low-grade futsu-shu would be like judging wine based on a jug of Boone’s Farm. In fact, sake is as diverse and interesting as wine, with an even longer history.

And just as the grape is made into an endless parade of spirits, rice has been put to use in a wide range of alcoholic beverages around the world. It turns up in Budweiser, it’s an ingredient in premium vodkas, and its surprisingly floral essence is captured in Japanese shochu.

No Ordinary Grass

Evidence uncovered by both archeologists and molecular geneticists points to China’s Yangtze Valley as the origin of all varieties of rice grown around the world. It was domesticated there between eight thousand and nine thousand years ago. Making some sort of drink out of it was clearly the first order of business: archeologist Patrick McGovern found evidence of an eight-thousand-year-old brew of rice, fruit, and honey at the Jiahu site in Henan Province. (He worked with Dogfish Head brewery to re-create the brew, which they named Chateau Jiahu.) It would take centuries of trial-and-error to develop the intricate process used to create modern sake, but those early rice wines were headed in that direction.





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