Friday, June 7, 2019
Historical Tidbits About Sake In The U.S.
1) The oldest American newspaper that I have found that mentions Sake is the Weekly National Intelligencer (D.C.), November 5, 1853. In reporting on one of the visits of Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan, there is reference to a "presents of saki and cake." Perry's visits to Japan were all over the news at this time, and a few additional brief mentions of saki exist in other newspapers around this time.
2) The New York Daily Herald, June 27, 1854 was the first newspaper to be more explicit as to the nature of Sake, discussing meetings between the Americans and Japanese, and noting, “The extract from rice is now the only liquor known in Japan. It is called saki by them. Hence they gave the name of “American saki” to all the drinks. They are fond of ardent spirits. The guests made it a business to taste of every wine and of every dish.”
3) The New York Tribune, October 17, 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. The saki is poured out by two young girls, one of whom is called the male butterfly, and the other the female butterfly — appellations derived from their susu, or saki jugs, each of which is adorned with a paper butterfly. As these insects always fly about in pairs, it is intended to intimate that so the husband and wife ought to be continually together." There is then a discussion of how the bride and groom drink the Sake, sipping three times from three different cups.
4) A penalty for stealing Sake. The New York Daily Herald, October 30, 1858, reported on an incident in Japan, where the American Consul held a trial for a whaleman, a native of Philadelphia. He was accused of stealing Sake, found guilty and sentenced to one year's hard labor. The same article also mentioned that in the Port of Hokadadi,“There are two or three distilleries in the city for the manufacture of saki, of which there are two kinds—the strong and the sweet.”
5) A Sake slushy? The Daily Alta California, January 7, 1860, published an article about the Fusi-yama Mountain, located near the bay of Yedo. “I am told, at its base, where the traveler can obtain at the inns a drink of saki, cooled by the snows brought from this lofty summit, and those who have tasted the mixture pronounce it equal to the famed ices of Tortoni, of the boulevard des Italiens, Paris.” I wonder if this Sake treat is still available there.
7) Sake bottles for sale. The Cincinnati Daily Press, October 27, 1860, mentioned an Auction sale of Chinese and Japanese goods, including “Rattan-covered saki bottles.” The Baltimore Sun, November 1, 1860, also mentioned an Auction sale of Japanese goods, including “Sakee Bottles.” A Baltimore, Maryland newspaper, on November 9, 1860, advertised an auction sale of "superb Japanese goods," including "sakee bottles." Though those bottles are not described, it seems likely the ads refer to tokkuri, traditional ceramic flasks used to pour sake.
8) Though the Japanese primarily consumed hot Sake, sometimes they enjoyed it cold. In the Holmes County Republican (Ohio), February 28, 1861, there was an article about a dinner in Japan held for some Americans. “Cold saki of two kinds, sweet and acrid, was profusely served towards the close of the feast, …”
9) What are the usual food pairing for Sake? A correspondent for The New York Times, July 31, 1868, wrote an article about their visit to a Japanese tea-house; “Saki was brought in. It is slightly alcoholic, and its taste is such as might be expected of a mixture of rum and sherry wine. It is always served hot, and from the tiny cups in use one may drink many a bumper and not feel it. With the saki came, as usual, fried eels, oranges and boiled snails, ..” Certainly an intriguing threesome of food for your hot Sake.
10) Not all Americans were a fan of Sake. In the Sacramento Daily Union, November 25, 1868, an article discussed the Japanese city of Hiogo, mentioning, “The only business carried on to any great extent is the distillation of saki. This is the "Bourbon whisky" of Japan. It is made out of rice, very similar to the manner in which we make whisky from rye. There are about thirty distilleries in one street, in each of which thousands of gallons of saki are stowed away, not in casks or barrels, but in a sort of bucket or pannier. 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.
11) The Hawaiian Gazette, May 5, 1869, advertised an auction sale by Adams & Wilder for "a large variety of merchantable & desirable goods," including linens, soaps, tea, sugar, tobacco and "10 tubs of Japanese sake." The advertisement didn't specify the size of those tubs.
12) Silkworms and Sake. The Sacramento Daily Union, August 21, 1869, discussed the silk culture in Japan, talking about the care of silkworms. There is mention that silkworms are fed with mulberry leaves, and “In some localities it was remarked that the cultivators moistened the leaves with water when the atmosphere was very dry, and at times with water mixed with saki (spirit fermented from rice) when the worms showed any signs of weakness.”
13) More negativity, and racism, towards Sake and the Japanese. The Idaho World, January 27, 1870, published an article describing the people of Yokohama people. Please note that "Yakonin" refers to "Samurai." The article stated, “A man with two swords is styled a Yakonin, and his weapons are obtained usually by birth, but frequently by service to some Prince or Daimio. They are, without exception, I believe hostile to Europeans, hating them cordially, and when under the influence of ‘saki’ (a liquor like pure spirits), have no greater ambition than murdering a foreigner. They are a numerous and a dangerous class, so dangerous that no foreigner is safe beyond the city without a strong guard.”
14) A Japanese-English & English-Japanese Dictionary by J.C. Hepburn (1872) listed a number of Sake-related terms, including the following:
Saka-bitari: A person soaked with Sake; a sot, a drunkard
Saka-dai: the price of Sake
Saka-daru: a wine-cask, a Sake-tub
Saka-hadzure: one at a wine party who avoids drinking
Saka-kabu: a license from the government to produce Sake
Saka-kigen: the spirits, or excitement produced by drinking wine
Saka-mori: a wine-party, entertainment, feast, banquet
Saka-te: money for buying Sake, drink-money
Sake-dzuki: one fond of Sake, a lover of wine
15) The Mariposa Gazette, November 24, 1877, discussed the home life in Japan, stating that, “The Japanese usually partake of three meals a day. The noon meal is more substantial than in the early morning, but that at evening, after the labors of the day are over, is the chief. Many spend hours over their evening cups and dishes. 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 over 10% alcohol.
16) The New Ulm Weekly Review (MN), March 2, 1881, published an excerpt from a book review of Unbeaten Tracks in Japan by Isabella Bird, an explorer, naturalist, writer and photographer. The review described “--sake, or rice beer, a straw-colored fluid of a faintish taste and smell, most varieties of which contain from 11 to 17.5 of alcohol." It also provided information on the production of Sake, noting the Japanese had done pasteurization for hundreds of years. It also stated, “Sake, it seems, ought to have five distinct tastes—sweetness, sourness, sharpness, bitterness and astringency, together with a slight trace of the flavor of fusel oil. Miss Bird thought it insipid, sickly and nauseous. It is frequently drunk hot, and, as a rule, is taken before what the Japanese consider the substantial part of the repast.”
17) The New York Tribune, November 5, 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.
19) In the Sacramento Daily Union, September 17, 1887, it claimed that 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 and this was but fear mongering.
20) Drinking habits around the world. The Springfield Daily Republic (Ohio), November 1, 1887, and various 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 most encouraging examples that the east presents of a nation progressing from Asiatic to a European plane of civilization." It also states, “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.”
21) How many Sake breweries were there in Japan during this time period? The Iron County Register (MO), February 28, 1889, reported that there were 18,153 Sake breweries in Japan, which produced a total of about 140 million gallons annually for a population less than 38 million.
22) It is interesting to note that in the Sausalito News, January 29, 1892, they printed an article stating, “Sake drinking, according to a writer in the "American Antiquarian," is one of the great curses of Japan. In 1879, the amount of rice converted into sake amounted to 15,000,000 bushels. Pledges to abstain from the habit are frequent among the picture-offerings in Japanese temples.” However, no additional details were given to explain the conclusion of the American Antiquarian writer.
23) There is an interesting article in the San Francisco Call, June 4, 1893 discussing various types of shops in Japan, including a Sake shop. “A little further down the street the tourist sees a branch of cryptomeria or a cluster of cypress trimmed into a symmetrical shape. This is the sign of the liquor-shop, the place where sake is sold." These are shops not bars or saloons. "Most of the customers take it home to drink, though some buy only a small quantity, a tiny cupful, perhaps, and swallow it on the spot. But there is no bar, no white aproned attendant or fancy drinks. The customers do not hang about to smoke and gossip, though, of course, they occasionally stop to chat a few moments with a neighbor." The shop is described as, "Instead of rows of glittering bottles great wooden tubs of various kinds and qualities of liquor stand about all decorated with elaborate Chinese characters and bearing the marks that tell the quality, the "extra superior" marked with a character and picture meaning "the full blown flower," and "best" marked "Dai" or great "first-class," and then a tub bearing a big crimson peony and lettered "Santokushu," meaning the sake of "three virtues"— flavor, strength and purity." It is also mentioned that, "The dealers in sweet sake, which is drunk principally by women and children, particularly at christening or rather naming feasts, advertise their business by exhibiting a painting of Fujiyama, the sacred mountain."
24) The legend of Saru-zake, monkey Sake, is explained in the Los Angeles Herald, October 1, 1893. First, the article mentions, “It will hardly be necessary to say that sake is made from fermented rice. It is drunk warm and tastes not unlike a mild sherry. To the strong westerner's stomach it is harmless and he could hardly contain enough to induce intoxication, but the vegetarian Japanese is less able to withstand its fumes, and, aided by inhaled tobacco, he quickly shows its effects and as quickly recovers there from.”
The article then discusses a legend that apes first discovered Sake. “Traditions of Kwate Ken place the discovery of sake to the apes that abound in the mountains of that province. On one of their more daring raids they carried off some good wife's rice mess as it awaited the coming home of the fishing party, hungry from their arduous task. Escaping into the hills, the uninvited guests proceeded to gorge themselves, ensconced in tbe branches of a mighty oak; filled to repletion, tbey dropped the remaining rice into a cupshaped cranny in the tree and scampered off. During the next day the sun is obscured and the rain descends and thoroughly soaks the rice. Nearing away towards evening the storm allows the low rays of tbe setting orb to penetrate the branches of the forest, and by a happy chance, it so focuses its rays on tbe secreted rice that fermentation sets in and Sake is born into the world."
25) In April 1894, a Hawaiian newspaper noted that a Japanese ship, the Aikoku Maru landed in Hawaii and the Custom Authorities seized 20 cases of Sake from the ship as they were not listed on the ship's manifest.
26) The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 25, 1894, reported on a Japanese club in Philadelphia, composed of Japanese who resided temporarily in the area, maybe working or gaining an education. They met for dinner once a month, and the article discussed their various customs, including their use of Sake. "The chilled Saki or rice wine is drunk out of china cups, so small as to be almost invisible. when this wine is drunk a large bowl filled with clear water is placed upon the table for the rinsing of the cups." The article continued, "When it is the intention to pay the highest possible compliment to some one else at the dinner table, the Japanese drink the rice wine and rinse out the cup in the large bowl of fresh water. The cup is then handed to the person who is to be toasted, who accepts it with a smile and a bow, and allows the waiter to refill the vessel with the rice wine. This he drinks, afterward repeats the rinsing process, finally sending it to some one else whom he desires to compliment in turn."
27) On December 27, 1894, a Honolulu newspaper discussed the effect of Sake on the city, stating: "Saki, a liquor distilled from rice, is a 'pleasant sweetish tasting drink, and it is so intoxicating that it takes effect very quickly.' The saloon keepers of Honolulu are glad to buy it, as it is very cheap at wholesale, and they retail it (at a handsome profit to themselves) to the poor Hawaiians at a much lower cost than other liquors. The Hawaiians think it fine to get drunk at so cheap a cost." The article also mentions that they have read of a number of "crimes committed under the effects of saki."
28) Another Honolulu newspaper, on February 22, 1895, advertised an "Auction Sale of Saki!" An unknown number of "Tubs of Japanese Saki," 7 gallons each, were offered and they were "Guaranteed in perfect order and condition." It is unknown whether a 7 gallon tub was a standard or not at this time.
30) The Sun (NY), July 5, 1896 discussed the price of Sake in Japan. “There are no public houses or saloons in Japan, but tea houses and sake shops abound. They are far too generously patronized by this class, and the solid food is washed down by their favorite drink, a turbid sake. This sake contains rice, from which it is brewed, in a pulverized form, the brewing not quite tempered. This liquid can be manufactured for the market in less than a month." It costs 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 about 33 cents in 2018.
31) The Los Angeles Herald, December 9, 1896, published an article stating, "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 wine, 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."
32) The Sausalito News, February 18, 1899, noted, "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." This is the complete opposite to earlier articles which claimed Sake was highly alcoholic.
33) What were Sake workers paid? The Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 8, 1900, discussed laborers in Japan, providing information about their hours, wages, and more. There was a table of the wages of day laborers for the year 1898. Sake brewers were under a special section for employees engaged by the month. Their highest wages was $5.73, their lowest wage $3.77, and the average was $4.72. They earned the most of the five categories of monthly workers, which included sag brewery workers, confectionary employees, and servants. Dependent on the amount of days worked by the various day laborers, sake brewery employees were in the top percentile of highly paid workers.
34) Returning to that opposite, the Amador Ledger (CA), August 3, 1900, referred to Sake as "rice brandy" and stated that it was "fiery stuff and goes to one's head more quickly than our own brandy." The San Francisco Call, July 14, 1901, also referred to Sake 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, and that isn't accurate at all.
35) The Los Angeles Herald, March 20, 1904, published a fascinating article, China Collecting In Los Angeles, which concentrated on Sake cups, kettles and bottles. It is well worth a read. "Many sake-drinking accessories are required by the elegantes of an art-loving country like Japan and so the united efforts of many craftsmen and artists are called forth to provide and properly beautify them." 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. "One is easily persuaded that all sake cups are delightful and desirable, yet all are frail, perishing bits of porcelain."
36) A deadly drunken brawl! The Mariposa Gazette, February 9, 1907, a San Francisco newspaper, reported on a deadly fight, allegedly caused by the effects of Sake. “T. Yeoka died at the Central Emergency Hospital, and H. Torogama, with an ugly slash across his shoulder, is being carefully nursed to life. The trouble was caused by the effects of the national drink, sake, of which a party of Japanese had been partaking heavily. At Sutter and Laguna streets the party under the influence of sake ran foul of Yeoka and Torogama. Knives flashed, and in the general melee which followed the two Japanese received the wounds.”
37) Does gold make Sake taste better? The Pullman Herald (WA), March 16, 1907, reported that “Mr. Shibata, the brewer, has ordered a solid gold pan, which will be used for tempering sake, says the Tokyo (Japan) Times. The capacity of the pan is such as to hold about 100 gallons. It will take two or three months to make the pan, during which time the house goldsmith will be specially guarded by the police.” Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find out more information about this matter.
38) According to the Los Angeles Herald, August 26, 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 didn't think lowering the license fee for them would lead to protests from other restaurant owners. If other restaurants did complain to the police, then they would reconsider the matter.
Apparently the police commission eventually decided against lowering the liquor license fee, and chose instead to take a more aggressive stance. Los Angeles Herald, May 24, 1909, reported that 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.
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 “In the olden days of the samurai the fierce warriors often preserved the heads of conquered foemen in tubs of sake and offered them for the identification of their feudal lords, as evidence of their 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
40) The San Francisco Call, January 23, 1911, mentioned that about 250,000 gallons of Japanese Sake are consumed in the U.S. This brief item doesn't mention how much is consumed in Hawaii versus the Mainlan.
41) Now, let's discuss alcoholic exports to Japan. The San Francisco Cal, June 6, 1911, stated that a shipment of 1000 barrels of California table wine were being 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.
42) Assault with a deadly weapon, a Sake bottle? The San Francisco Call, July 22, 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.
43) The Sun (NY), March 10, 1912, published an interesting article describing Sake and its production, 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.
44) The Japan Year Book, 1920-1921, by Y. Takenob, is a "Complete Cylopedia of General Information and Statistics on Japan and Japanese Territories." The book had a section on the Sake industry and presented some interesting information about Nada Sake. “For sake, the national liquor brewed from rice, ‘Five villages of Nada,’ situated about midway between Osaka and Kobe, are the most noted centre of production in Japan. What is interesting is that the fame of "Nada sake" is generally attributed not to any improved process of brewing as to the peculiar quality of water in certain wells existing in the five villages. The general opinion is that certain bacilli found in the water possess the virtue of imparting peculiar agreeable flavor to the liquor. The wells yielding such water possess considerable value, and are a lasting source of goodly income to the owners."
45) 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.
46) The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, November 22, 1930, noted the decrease in Sake consumption in Japan. They are drinking about 27% less Sake than they did five years ago. There were about 10,650 Sake breweries, and in 1930, they produced about 201 Million gallons, a decrease of 77 Million from 1925. In 1920, total production had been 314 Million gallons. This hurt the government through reduced taxes on the Sake, which had dropped from 238 Million yen in 1928 to 170 Million yen in 1930. The production of beer has been declining as well, though not as much as Sake.
47) The earliest Sake cocktail in the U.S.? The first American newspaper that I've found to mention a Sake cocktail was the Cincinnati Enquirer, June 29, 1936, discussing New York City and a review of Daruma, a Sixth Ave. sukiyaki place. “Don’t commit the faux pas of ordering cold sake. They have it both ways on the menu, probably trying to please these Americans. But the Japanese know best—sake deserves to be heated. Miyako also offers a sake cocktail—a shockingly unorthodox concoction calculated to make a shogun shudder in his tomb.” Unfortunately, there wasn't a description of the cocktail.
(The original version of this article was posted in April 2015, and has seen multiple expansions & revisions over the years due to additional research. Most recently, I've added 13 new items to this list, and revised/expanded some of the previous items.)