There was not a “Big Bang” moment for the beginning of the rice-based alcohol known as sake. If there was, it was not documented as a pure “genesis” event in which rice fermented into a discernible alcoholic potion. Lore, legend, and some documentation has filled in the blanks of how sake—Ninhonshu or the “wine of Japan”—made its way into everyday life. But before we go forward we must go back—as rice was not the first grain, fruit, or nut that was fermented.
Look first to ancient Africa, the Middle-East, and China and its safe to assume that a rice-based alcohol was not the first business on the block. Many schools of thought exist as to what, and more importantly where, the first man-made alcoholic concoction was created. The beer folks have their idea: Mesopotamia circa 5,000 years ago. The wine folks have their idea: Georgia or Iran 6000BC. And, of course, other schools say that the first was a combination of fruits, grains, and honey that goes back even further in time.
Purely looking at a rice-based alcohol then look no further than Ancient China, which was ground zero for rice agriculture. Thus, it is safe to assume that the “where” question can be answered in the Chinese river valleys some 4,500 years ago. Although the Chinese made all sorts of fermented rice-based drinks and devised some of the most important sake making techniques, Japan is the nation that made sake famous. How did sake get to Japan? It followed the rice of course.
Chinese wet-rice cultivation was introduced to Japan 2,500 years ago, which is the first time period that sake can be considered “active.” Most sake historians start the clock here and then disagree on how the rice was fermented. As one would assume, rice is an organic matter that is susceptible to naturally occurring airborne yeasts, which ferments over time.
So, it is safe to say that the first form of sake came by way of a collection of harvested rice that was perhaps left unattended or was cooked but not consumed as food. A daring soul tasted the broth of this rotten batch of fermented rice and voila: sake as a booze came to life. Thus, rice farmers became the first brewers of sorts.