The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications



Other Names


Chongha, chongjung, ju, kukhuaju, makoli, reisbier, reiswein, rice beer, rice wine, saké, saki, taenju, tong dong ju, “wine”


Sake is brewed from water, rice (Oryza sativa L.), yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), and the koji fungus (Aspergillus oryzae). A variety of methods may be used to prepare the hulled rice, after which it is mashed. Koji is then added, which transforms the rice’s starch into sugar. The rice is then mixed with water and fermented with the help of yeast. The alcohol content of the finished drink depends upon how much of the starch has been transformed into sugar. If 40% of the starch becomes sugar, the sake will contain 20% ethanol (= alcohol) (Kondo 1992, 42 f.). In former times, a kuchikami no sake, “sake chewed in the mouth,” was made using a very archaic method: Rice, chestnuts (Castanea sativa Mill.), and millet were chewed thoroughly and spat into a trough of water. After a few days, the mix would finish fermenting and be ready to drink. Sake is actually more like beer than wine. In Korea, sakelike drinks and their mashes have been distilled into high-proof rice schnapps for some five hundred years.

In ancient China, alcoholic drinks (chiu) made from rice were already known during the Neolithic period (over four thousand years ago). During the Chou era, rice wine was drunk as a gift of offering in the ancester cult. This wine was brewed with the addition of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) or dogwood (Cornus spp.) (Majlis 1981, 314). Sometimes saffron (Crocus sativa), ginger (Zingiber officinale), or the seeds of Datura metel were also used.

The art of sake brewing originated in China, rapidly spread to Korea, and was introduced into Japan around the seventh century. There, it has become a national drink and has retained its position in the world of inebriating drinks as a typically Japanese specialty.

In Japan, sake brewing falls under the protection of Matsuno’o, the god of sake (Kondo 1992, 26). The origins of the drink are traced back to the god Susanoonomikata, the brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu. He is said to have invented the inebriating drink in order to sedate the great snake of Lake Yamata so that he could kill it with his magical sword. Originally, sake was brewed as a “drink of the gods,” only for festivals and rituals of the Shinto cult. Great quantities were offered so that the gods would look with favor upon humans. When people drank it, they felt “like gods.” In contemporary Japan, sake is still also known as “nirvana wine,” because drinking it is supposed to lead one to nirvana. Over the course of history, certain sake-drinking rituals have evolved that bear a strong resemblance to the tea ceremony (cf. Camellia sinensis). But today, sake is enjoyed primarily as a part of profane life.

There are many varieties of sake, from dry to sweet, of which some are drunk ice cold and others lukewarm, warm, or hot. Dry, high-quality sake is always enjoyed cold or ice cold. Lower-quality sakes are heated so that the poor taste will not be apparent.

Sake was sometimes brewed with additives. A “black sake” was made with the addition of ashes from aromatic woods (presumably lignum aloe; cf. incense) and a kikuzaké (“chrysanthemum sake”) with the addition of chrysanthemum blossoms (Chrysanthemum morifolium Ramat.)457 (Kondo 1992, 17). Sake also may have once been brewed with Phytolacca acinosa (pokeweed). In tenth-and eleventh-century China, a “medicinal wine” was made from sake and sû hé xîang (= storax, the resin of Liquidambar orientalis Mill.; cf. incense), to which the dried rhizome of bai zhu (Atractylodes macrocephala Koidz.) was also added. One of the uses of this storax wine was to restore consciousness to a person who had passed out (Shen Kuo 1997, 68, 261*; cf. han-shi).

“The storax-scented wine . . . is very well suited for bringing the five organs [heart, liver, spleen, lungs, kidneys] into harmony with one another and for dispelling all diseases of the stomach. If one awakens in the morning with a cold, one should always drink a cup of this wine.”






(1997, 68*)



Traditional sake vessels in Kamakura, Japan.


In Japan sake is often added to green tea (Camellia sinensis) during the cold months. In Korea, all sakelike drinks, and in particular the milky, mildly alcoholic makoli, play a significant role in the native shamanism, which continues to thrive in spite of thousands of years of suppression. Taenju, “wine,” is a central offering (libation) in all Korean shamanic ceremonies (Cho 1982, 107, 117). Because of the copious consumption of makoli and ecstatic dancing, powerful altered states of consciousness are often experienced during these offering ceremonies. A document from the thirteenth century notes:


During Wei (Korean Ye), people made offerings to the heavens at the October ceremony and drank, sang, and danced day and night. They called their ceremony wutian [Korean much’on = dance (in honor) of the heavens]. (Cho 1982, 12)


It is possible that in the past, a psychoactive mushroom (e.g., Amanita pantherinaPanaeolus subbalteatus, or Psilocybe spp.) may have been added to the makoli. After all, the “mushroom of immortality” is regarded as a gift of the tengu, the shamanic mountain deity.


A view of a Japanese sake brewery (woodcut from Nihon Sankai Meisan Zu-e, ca. 1800).




See also the entries for beer.


Cho, Hung-Youn. 1982. Koreanischer Schamanismus: Eine Einführung. Hamburg: Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde.


Kondo, Hiroshi. 1992. Saké: A drinker’s guide. Tokyo, New York, and London: Kodansha International.


Majlis, Brigitte. 1981. Alkoholische Getränke im alten China. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1:314–319. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.