The story of saké: A behind-the-scenes look at the favored spirit

HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 24:  Japanese sake brewery workers prepare to remove freshly steamed rice in preparation for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
Japanese sake brewery workers prepare to remove freshly steamed rice in preparation for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on Jan. 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 24:  Japanese sake brewery workers transport steamed rice to put to in sake barrels for fermenting at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
Japanese sake brewery workers transport steamed rice to put to in sake barrels for fermenting at Tanaka Sake Brewery on Jan. 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 24:  Japanese sake brewery workers prepare to remove freshly steamed rice in preparation for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
Japanese sake brewery workers prepare to remove freshly steamed rice in preparation for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on Jan. 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 16:  Misa Kawaisi, chief sake brew master, cools steamed rice at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on November 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. Kawaishi, one of a few female sake brew masters, is a unique figure in male-diminated sake brewers world.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
Misa Kawaishi, chief sake brew master, cools steamed rice at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on Nov. 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. Kawaishi, one of a few female sake brew masters, is a unique figure in a male-dominated sake brewers world. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 16:  Misa Kawaisi (R), chief sake brew master, cools steamed rice as worker assists, at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on November 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. Kawaishi, one of a few female sake brew masters, is a unique figure in male-diminated sake brewers world. .  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
Misa Kawaishi (R), chief sake brew master, cools steamed rice as a worker assists, at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on Nov. 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 16:  Misa Kawaisi, chief sake brew master, fills sake bottles at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on November 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. Kawaishi, one of a few female sake brew masters, is a unique figure in male-diminated sake brewers world. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
Misa Kawaishi, chief sake brew master, fills sake bottles at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on Nov. 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 16:  Misa Kawaisi (L), chief sake brew master, evens out steamed rice to cool it down, at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on November 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. Kawaishi, one of a few female sake brew masters, is a unique figure in male-diminated sake brewers world.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
Misa Kawaishi (L), chief sake brew master, evens out steamed rice to cool it down, at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on Nov. 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 24:  A Japanese sake brewery worker stirs fermenting sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
A Japanese sake brewery worker stirs fermenting sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on Jan. 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 22:  Japanese sake brewery worker stands over the washed rice for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 22, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
A Japanese sake brewery worker stands over the washed rice for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on Jan. 22, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 22:  Japanese sake brewery workers wash rice in preparation for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 22, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).
Japanese sake brewery workers wash rice in preparation for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on Jan. 22, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 22:  Japanese sake brewery worker holds up a glass of freshly made sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 22, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
A Japanese sake brewery worker holds up a glass of freshly made sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on Jan. 22, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Buddhika Weerasinghe)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 20:  Sake wines are categorised ready for tasting during the 'International Wine Challenge' event at the Barbican centre on April 20, 2010 in London, England. Judges will taste from over 10,000 bottles of wine from across the globe, with wines in each category winning either Gold, Silver or Bronze in the biggest and most important event of its kind in the world.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Sake wines are ready for tasting during the “International Wine Challenge” event in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Dan Kitwood)
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HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 24:  Japanese sake brewery workers prepare to remove freshly steamed rice in preparation for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 24:  Japanese sake brewery workers transport steamed rice to put to in sake barrels for fermenting at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 24:  Japanese sake brewery workers prepare to remove freshly steamed rice in preparation for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 16:  Misa Kawaisi, chief sake brew master, cools steamed rice at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on November 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. Kawaishi, one of a few female sake brew masters, is a unique figure in male-diminated sake brewers world.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 16:  Misa Kawaisi (R), chief sake brew master, cools steamed rice as worker assists, at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on November 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. Kawaishi, one of a few female sake brew masters, is a unique figure in male-diminated sake brewers world. .  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 16:  Misa Kawaisi, chief sake brew master, fills sake bottles at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on November 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. Kawaishi, one of a few female sake brew masters, is a unique figure in male-diminated sake brewers world. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 16:  Misa Kawaisi (L), chief sake brew master, evens out steamed rice to cool it down, at Nadagiku-Shozo sake brewery on November 16, 2012 in Himeji, Japan. Kawaishi, one of a few female sake brew masters, is a unique figure in male-diminated sake brewers world.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 24:  A Japanese sake brewery worker stirs fermenting sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 24, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 22:  Japanese sake brewery worker stands over the washed rice for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 22, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 22:  Japanese sake brewery workers wash rice in preparation for making sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 22, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images).
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 22:  Japanese sake brewery worker holds up a glass of freshly made sake at Tanaka Sake Brewery on January 22, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe targets 60 billion yen by 2020, a fivefold increase in rice-based product exports including sake.  (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 20:  Sake wines are categorised ready for tasting during the 'International Wine Challenge' event at the Barbican centre on April 20, 2010 in London, England. Judges will taste from over 10,000 bottles of wine from across the globe, with wines in each category winning either Gold, Silver or Bronze in the biggest and most important event of its kind in the world.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON Vodka can be made in a couple of days. A decent beer can be ready in a few weeks. But when it comes to saké, nothing can be rushed.

Saké is a traditional rice wine that has been made and consumed in Japan for nearly 2,000 years. In the U.S., its popularity is on the rise, thanks in part to the universality of sushi, ramen and other Japanese cuisine staples but few know how saké is made.

In the new PBS documentary “The Birth of Saké,”  New York-based filmmaker Erik Shirai travels to the Yoshida brewery in northern Japan and uncovers the culture and tradition behind one of the oldest and most labor-intensive spirit-making processes.

For nearly six months, saké artisans, ranging in age from 20 to 70, leave their families and friends behind to live and work in “nearly monastic isolation” to make the beverage.

They wake up at 4 a.m. to start a day that never really stops. In fact, the head brewmaster compares making saké to raising a finicky child.

“It’s because you have to wake up in the middle of the night and take care of it, check the temperature, add water … you have to be there full-time, basically, to tend to it,” Shirai explained.

That’s why no one can leave the brewery while saké is in production.

“Everybody has to be there almost all the time because it’s a 24-hour process of tending to it,” he said. 

The around-the-clock care and attention and the lost art of that concept is what surprised Shirai the most while making the film.

“Coming from the Western world, there are not many fields of work where you live with workers night in and night out for six or seven months out of the year. It feels very uncommon,” he said.

With options such as soju, wine, beer and whisky, saké has taken a backseat in the beverage industry in Japan in recent years, and sales have slumped. But in Europe and the U.S., saké is on the rise.

Exports of Japan’s national drink reached $94 million in 2014, up from $43 million in 2005. In the U.S., alone, exports grew from $21 million to almost $34 million during the same period, USA TODAY reports.

Despite international growth, Japan’s time-honored breweries are closing. In the early 20th century there were 4,600 saké breweries. That number is now around 1,000, PBS reports.

Shirai hopes his inside look at the time and care that goes into the craft will strike a nerve with consumers, and maybe cause pause and contemplation before the next sip.

“Maybe next time when you go out and have sushi and you have that saké, you’re not just dropping saké bombs and getting drunk. You can see a face behind it and find more appreciation behind the craft,” he said.

“The Birth of Saké” can be streamed on PBS for free through Sept. 19.

Watch the trailer below:

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