You may know sake as an esteemed Japanese ‘rice wine’, you may be familiar with it in the form of messy noodle bar sake bombs, but you probably never knew that it used to be made of rice chewed by virgins in ancient religious rituals.
As it turns out, long before sake became the alcohol tasting trend of the Western world, it was actually an important part of Shinto purification rituals in Japan. Important ceremonies like weddings included sake drinking as part of the symbolic dedication to purity, alongside other emblematic elements like water and sand. Those who observe Shinto traditions often purify themselves this way when entering a holy shrine.
All the religious uses of sake in ritual Shinto practices rely on its nature as inherently pure and clean. Sake bars and more popular consumption of the alcoholic drink pick up on this in a much less spiritual sense — premium sake is distinguished by the high rice polishing ratio of each batch and the absence of additives that would be considered perfectly normal in other alcoholic products.
But before equipment was available for rice polishing, the brewing of premium sake had a much more human touch. Think Lucy crushing Italian grapes with her bare feet to make wine, but with an emphasis on sexuality instead of comedy:
The basics of ‘rice wine’ and many other basic alcohols require the mashing of a grain with some kind of yeast in order to break down the sugars that are converted into alcohol. Without the industrialisation of the alcohol industry we have today, sake was once brewed from the rice grains that people had ‘chewed’ specifically for the purpose of a good brew.
In English, the term ‘kuchikami no sake’ means chewing-in-the-mouth sake. It’s a literal translation of the process, but explains the basics in simple terms. After chewing the rice grains (or in those times, chestnuts or millet), people would spit them into a large wooden vat that would brew for days while the enzymes from the chewers’ saliva worked to convert the rice starch into alcohol, reacting with yeasts in the air.
This specific kind of sake was eaten with chopsticks, not poured and drunk at your local specialty bar. It was thick like a paste, and before long this specific type of sake was incorporated into Shinto festivals. To produce the most sacred sake consumption, only virgin girls could chew the rice because they were considered holy mediums. This specific type of ‘chewing-in-the-mouth’ became known as bijinshu, or ‘beautiful woman sake’.
Clearly sake-brewing has come a long way since then, as everything from process to taste to service has been revolutionised for popular consumption. But sake was also Japan’s first commercial enterprise, making its way into popular markets during the Kamakura Shogunate which lasted from 1192 to 1333.
Next time you’re toasting ‘kanpai’ over the ever-popular Japanese export, raise a cup to the ancient virgins who chewed the grain to make sacred wine.