Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Historical Tidbits About Sake In The U.S.

While researching my article on the early Sake breweries in the U.S., I discovered a number of other fascinating historical stories and tidbits about Sake. They didn't necessarily fit into my article but I still wanted to share these seventeen items as I know some of my readers will find these matters quite interesting. I have organized them by date, from the earliest in 1854 to the latest in 1926, and I hope you enjoy this look into American's early views on Sake. Please note that the newspapers, into the early 20th century, used both Saki and Sake to refer to this beverage.

1) The oldest newspaper that I have found that mentioned Sake was an Ohio newspaper in July 1854. It noted: The extract from rice is now the only liquor known in Japan. It is called saki by them.” As Commodore Matthew Perry, on March 28,1854, had just made a treaty with Japan, essentially opening up the country to trade, it seems likely that many people were starting to discuss aspects of Japanese culture, and Sake started to become known to the general public. It could have been mentioned in earlier newspapers and I am continuing my research.

2) A Sacramento newspaper, in November 1855, discussed the role of Saki in Japanese marriage ceremonies. It states: "The formality of the marriage consists in drinking sake after a peculiar manner." It mentions how two young girls, referred to as a male and female butterfly, pour the Saki from susu, Saki jugs, which are each adorned with a paper butterfly. There is then a discussion of how the bride and groom drink the Sake, sipping three times from three different cups.

3) In November 1868, a Sacramento newspaper called Sake the "bourbon whisky" of Japan. The article presented a negative image of Sake, stating: "Saki is a transparent, yellowish liquid, extremely sharp, extremely intoxicating, and particularly disagreeable and unpleasant to the taste." During the next 50-60 years, newspapers would vary in their descriptions, some claiming Sake was "extremely intoxicating" while others stating it was only mildly intoxicating.

4) A California newspaper in August 1869 discussed the silk culture in Japan, talking about the care of silkworms. There is mention that silkworms are fed with mulberry leaves, and sometimes those leaves are moistened with Sake "when the worms showed any signs of weakness."

5) Another California newspaper article from November 1877 discussed the home life in Japan, stating that “At this time probably a majority drink sake in greater or less quantity. The drink is brewed from rice, and contains from two to eight per cent, of alcohol.” I suspect the information about the alcohol content is erroneous, as Sake is usually is in the double digits. This article also runs counter to the article mentioned above in #3, which claimed Sake was "extremely intoxicating."

6) A Minnesota newspaper, in March 1881, published an excerpt from a book review of Unbeaten Tracks in Japan by Isabella Bird, an explorer, naturalist, writer and photographer. Mrs. Bird traveled to Japan and thought Sake was "insipid, sickly and nauseous." She also wasn't much a fan of Japanese cuisine.

7) The New York Tribune, in November 1882, published an interesting, albeit brief, article on the Sake brewing process in their Science For The People column. This seems to indicate an interest in Sake beyond the basic cultural items.

8) In June 1886, a California newspaper wrote about two aspects of Japanese etiquette, the tea-party and the wedding. In the wedding section, there was a discussion of sansankudo, the ritual where both bride and groom sip from three cups of Sake during the ceremony.

9) Some interesting information on now Americans view Sake brewing is provided in a newspaper in April 1887. It is said that malt is made from rice called koji, and that the rice is steamed to make it gelatinous in consistency. Once cooled, yeast is added and it is then fermented, being frequently stirred. Water is added and it is fermented for 5-6 days, when it is then filtered and becomes available for consumption.

10) In September 1887, a Sacramento newspaper claimed the Sake was "dangerous from the large proportion of fusil oil contained in it." Fusel oils are found in most alcoholic beverages, but if the levels are too high, they can make people sick. Later information does not seem to indicate that Sake ever had dangerous levels of fusel oils.

11) In November 1887, an Ohio newspaper, and a number of other newspapers across the country, published an article titled Drinks Of All Nations. The article discussed the drinking habits of numerous countries, from China to the Middle East, though the article was trying to prove the proposition that "The easily governed nations drink no strong liquors." It is an extremely condescending and racist article. For example, it says: "The Japs are the mos encouraging examples that the east presents of a nation progressing from Asiatic to a European plane of civilization."

As for Sake consumption, the article notes: “No nation in Asia drinks so persistently and steadily as do the Japanese. The average Jap consumes about half a pint of sake or rice beer with each meal—a pint and a half per day--saying nothing about further social indulgence in the evening. Both men and women drink sake by the pint daily, and think no harm of it, either.”

12) It is interesting to note that a California newspaper in January 1892, quoted a writer from the American Antiquarian, claiming Sake drinking was "one of the great curses of Japan." However, no additional details were given to explain that conclusion.

13) There is an interesting article from June 1893 discussing the type of shops, including a Sake store, you will find while touring a Japanese city. Interestingly, the author refers to Sake as a "rice whisky." The article mentions how you can usually identify the shop as it has a branch of cryptomeria or a cluster of cypress outside. Most people buy Sake and take it home with them, though a few will buy a tiny cup of Sake and drink it there. The shelves have wooden tubs of Sake, each marked with a character and picture.You might see the word "Dai" meaning "best" of "first-class," or "Santokusbu," meaning "the three virtues of flavor, strength and purity." It is also noted that sweet Sake, which is allegedly drunk primarily by women and children, especially at some holidays, is often advertised with a picture of Mount Fuji.

14) The legend of Saru-zake, monkey Sake, is explained in a newspaper article in October 1893. First, the article mentions that Sake is drunk warm and tastes similar to a mild Sherry. That comparison to Sherry is raised numerous times in later newspaper articles. It is also claimed that westerners can drink plenty of Sake without getting drunk, while the "vegetarian Japanese" get drunk much easier with Sake.

The article then discusses a legend that apes first discovered Sake. It is said that apes stole rice from some human homes, and took that rice back into the mountains. After devouring some of the rice, they left the remaining rice in the crook of a tree. Later, rains came that soaked the rice and later, when the sun came out, it warmed the rice, starting a fermentation process. Thus, Sake was created. I have read of this legend in other sources, though usually the tale involves fruit that accidentally ferments into alcohol. This is the first time I have heard the tale where rice is involved.

15) In April 1894, a Hawaiian newspaper noted that a Japanese ship, the Aikoku Maru landed i Hawaii and the Custom Authorities seized 20 cases of Sake from the ship as they were not listed on the ship's manifest.

16) The Salt Lake Herald, in April 1896, discussed an intriguing Sake legend, one I;ve never heard of before. “Well there is a tradition that if one drinks a great deal of sake one’s hair will become red, for a boy who once fell into a pot of it came out with a sorrell top." Has anyone heard this legend before?

17) A July 1896 article in the New York Sun discusses the price of Sake in Japan.  It is supposed to cost two Sen for a go, a 180ml serving of Sake. By the exchange rate at that time, that serving of Sake would cost only one U.S. penny. Based on the inflation calculator, that one penny would be the equivalent of a quarter in 2014, meaning it was an excellent value then.

18) In December 1896, a Los Angeles newspaper noted,  "Sake is a natural beverage of Japan, and until recent years was the only fermented liquor known in that empire. It is obtained by the distillation of the best kinds of rice. In appearance it resembles very pale sherry w.me, though in taste it is somewhat acid. The best sake is white, but there are many varieties, and the poorer people in Japan have to content themselves with a turbid sort."

19) A Sausalito newspaper, in February 1899, notes: "The little .laps are about as free from the vice of drunkenness as any people in the world. In fact, it is the rarest thing in the world to see an inebriated snbject of the mikado. The native drink, "saki," is used about as tea in this country, and it is but little more intoxicating."

20) In August 1900, another California newspaper, the Amador Ledger, referred to Sake as "rice brandy" and in July 1901, a San Francisco newspaper article also referred to it as "rice brandy". This seems to me as if they considered Sake to be more similar to a fortified wine, with a higher alcohol content. The Amador Ledger also stated that Sake was "fiery stuff and goes to one's head more quickly than our own brandy."

21) The Los Angeles Herald, in March 1904, published an article, China Collecting In Los Angeles, which concentrated on Sake cups, kettles and bottles. It is worth a read. The article mentions that Sake kettles were usually made of iron with a bronze lid while Sake bottles were usually made in the "pilgrim gourd" style. Most of the article talks about Sake cups, and their styles, decorations, and more.

22) In February 1907, a San Francisco newspaper reported on a deadly fight, allegedly caused by the effects of Sake. A number of men, who had been drinking heavily, were out on the street when they came upon two other men, T. Yeoka and H.Torogama. For some reason, not mentioned in the article, a terrible fight broke out, and the drunk men pulled out knives. Yeoka was killed and Torogame received serious wounds. I was unable to find any additional information about how this incident turned out.

23) In August 1908, there were about forty Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles, and they usually served alcohol. However, they often don't possess a proper liquor license, which would cost $60, as they claimed it was too expensive. The police commission has been considering the matter, speculating that maybe they should lower it for Japanese restaurants, down to only $20 for a license. The police noted that it was tough to convict these restaurants for license violations as the restaurants catered almost exclusively to other Japanese, who wouldn't testify against each other. These Japanese restaurants were not seen as competitors to other restaurants, so the police commission doesn't think lowering the license fee for them would lead to protests from other restaurant owners.

Apparently the police commission eventually decided against lowering the liquor license fee, and chose instead to take a more aggressive stance. In May 1909, the police raided the various Japanese restaurants, finding that none of them had liquor license on record, though many had Geisha girls serving Sake and beer to their customers. The records also indicated that three Chinese restaurants in the city had liquor licenses, which now cost $75. The raids seemed to accomplish their purpose as the next month, 26 Japanese restaurants applied for liquor licenses, though only 12 received them. The police felt that 12 licenses were sufficient to meet the needs of the Japanese community. However, by October, a total of 20 Japanese restaurants had secured the proper licenses.

24) The San Francisco Sunday Call, on December 18, 1910, ran one of maybe the first major articles abut Sake in English. The extensive article, Sake, The National Booze Of The Japanese, was written by Mary Ogden Vaughan, and is well worth reading. It touches on many different aspects of Sake, from customs to legends.

I want to highlight some information on pricing during this period. Vaughan states, "A good sized cask of the best— and the best comes from the great rice fields in the region of Osaka, near the Inland sea — costs between $3 and $4 in Japan. In this country the wholesale price is at the rate of $1.25 a gallon."

In addition, the article mentions that during the time of the samurai, they used to preserve the heads of their enemies in tubs of Sake. They would then present these heads to their liege for identification and also to show their martial prowess.

You'll also find a Japanese drinking song:
When you drink sake
You feel like the springtime,
And the loud cries
Of impatient creditors
On the outside
Sound in your ears
Like the voices of' nightingales
Singing most sweetly

25) In January 1911, a San Francisco newspaper noted that about 250,000 gallons of Japanese Sake are consumed in the U.S. That is approximately 105,00 cases.

26) In June 1911, a shipment of 1000 barrels of California table wine was sent to Japan, allegedly because it was said that the Japanese were starting to change their tastes, from Sake to wine. After California wine had previously dealt with competition in Hawaii from Sake imports, I'm sure they felt better that their wines were now being seen as competitive to Sake in Japan.

27) Assault with a deadly weapon, a Sake bottle? A San Francisco newspaper, in July 1911, told the tale of an intoxicated Japanese man who allegedly assaulted a fellow wedding guest with a Sake bottle. The accused was eventually acquitted of a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.

28) In New York in March 1912, the Sun newspaper published an article describing Sake, and it even refers to it as seishu, the legal name for Sake in Japan. It states Sake is unique, and though it resembles beer, wine and brandy, it is not any of those categories.It correctly notes that Sake is originally of Chinese origin.

29) In July 1926  a Sausalito newspaper reported on a “Dry" Village In Japan. "The young women residents of Takaso, a village in Japan, have refused to marry any young man who has not taken the pledge. The members of the Young Women’s association noticed that an abnormal quanlty of sake, the national Japanese drink, was being consumed by the “young bloods,” so they organized and voted unanimously to have nothing to do with any youth who drank sake." I haven't yet been able to find any more information about this pledge.

(Update as of July 1, 2015: I've added twelve new items to this list, including a newspaper article that is five years older than the previous one.)

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