Sake and alcohol content: The ABC’s on ABV

March 25, 2021 Bryan West

Recently, Tippsy has been receiving a lot of questions from curious drinkers on the alcohol content in sake. Is it more or less than wine? Is it hard alcohol? Is that why it’s served in those tiny cups that look like shot glasses? These are all great questions. As the world of sake is still such uncharted territory for many of our customers, it’s a good time to take a closer look at this beverage that really is in a category all its own.

A great place to start would be to examine sake facts: what sake is and how it is made (you can read more about the sake brewing process here). The term that gets used often is that sake is a “rice wine” which leads to a lot of confusion. Sake, like wine, offers an often slow and contemplative drinking experience. The drinker swirls her glass, takes in the aroma, and considers the sensations that affect her palate. By what the senses convey to the drinker, the alcohol content is clearly higher than that of a beer or cider, and so the sake is usually consumed in smaller sips. That is, of course, unless you’re engaged in rounds of “sake bombs,” which while both fun and headache-inducing, are really an exercise outside the world of sake completely.

The similarities to wine end here. Sake is, after all, not made from grapes, but rice. Technically, it’s closest relative would be beer, as they’re both made from grains. When describing sake, I like to use the borrowed expression that it is “built like beer, but drinks like wine.” However, even this is an oversimplification. True, sake is brewed like beer. It is not distilled, and thus is not a spirit or hard alcohol.

Unlike wine, it isn’t made from a fruit that contains the sugars for a simple fermentation. There are currently many exciting projects happening among the younger generation of brewers to create sake that more closely resembles wine by increasing the acidity and lowering the alcohol content in the hopes of attracting wine-lovers. This represents a very tiny portion of the market though. So then what is sake? The answer lies in its unique alcohol-producing process.

Sake is made by multiple parallel fermentation. In this process koji, that fungus that is the key to the craft of sake, converts rice to glucose, or sugar. At the very same time, in the same tank, yeast converts that sugar to alcohol. Multiple parallel fermentation is distinctly unique to sake and helps to yield the highest alcohol content of any fermented beverage. The secret to this high yield lies in the unique properties of the yeast. Sake yeast is able to survive and continues to work in an especially high-alcohol environment in comparison to other beverages. The yeast is kept healthy and active by a slower fermentation process at a relatively low temperature, and incrementally adding rice, koji and water over a period of four days. This careful and deliberate progression is called san-dan jikomi (three step mashing). This keeps sugar levels at a balance that allows yeast to continue to produce alcohol up to the very moment it no longer can, where it ultimately dies off. Through these two extraordinary processes, sake alcohol levels can reach as high as 22 percent, significantly higher than beer or wine.

In multiple parallel fermentation, the conversion of starch to fermentable sugars and sugar to alcohol happens simultaneously in the same tank.

A distilled spirit that is usually made from cane sugar is also commonly added during fermentation. This is called aru-ten. However, aru-ten is not done to increase the alcohol content. Historically, brewer’s alcohol was added to protect the mash from unwanted bacteria and increase production. These days a small amount is added to unlock aromas and help deliver a crisp, clean finish. The addition of alcohol is no way considered “cheating,” and is a technique employed by many breweries. There are those who like to set themselves apart from the pack, and demonstrate their commitment to create a more “pure” product by making junmai. The term junmai is used to designate any sake that does not use brewer’s alcohol, and signifies that only rice, water and koji were used (Read more about the main categories of sake here.)

When the brewing process is finished, sake is usually around 20 percent alcohol, and then is most often diluted with water in a process called warimizu. This is done to soften the alcoholic edge, and achieve a smooth, balanced product. After this dilution, sake is bottled at 15 to 16 percent alcohol. Nearly all sake is sold at this ABV.

However, a small portion of the market is devoted to undiluted sake called genshu. In this style, the stage of adding water is skipped, which very often makes a strong, rich and robust drink with an alcohol content of 17 to nearly 20 percent. This is not always the case, as low alcohol genshu can be made as well.

The Kamotsuru “Tokubetsu Junmai” is a really nice undiluted sake from Hiroshima. Despite the higher than usual alcohol content, it drinks quite easily, and has a clean dry finish. Another fun genshu options Tippsy carries actually comes in a can. Kikusui Brewing Company in Niigata Prefecture offers undiluted, unpasteurized sake in individual servings, a very fun sake they call Kikusui “Funaguchi.” You can get these in a pack of three different variations. These are also interesting in that they are a big departure from the kind of sake Niigata is known for, which is normally light and dry with a quick finish. The “Funaguchi” cans are big, bold and viscous.

It is always a fun idea to compare the taste of different types of sake.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of sake with a lower alcohol content as well, especially when it comes to sake that has been flavored. This may give some drinkers pause as the word “flavored” when it comes to alcohol usually gives an impression of “artificial.” Nothing to fear though as many breweries use natural fruit juice as yet another way to express their commitment to quality and to showcase the great produce of their region. Ichinokura “Himezen Ume” is an umeshu, or plum “wine,” from Miyagi Prefecture. They dilute their junmai sake with local plums to create a tart and refreshing drink that is a light 8 percent alcohol. Similarly, there is the Kamikokoro “Momo,” which is a Tippsy staff favorite. This sake is blended with the juice of a prized variety of white peach called Shimizu Hakuto, which is a source of pride for Okayama Prefecture.

With its unique brewing process and myriad of techniques and styles, there are so many different ways to explore sake. Whether it’s big and boozy, smooth and balanced, or light and sweet, there’s surely something to please everyone. Have fun experimenting with the different types of sake and finding what tastes best to you.

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Bryan West

Bryan West has been a professional in the hospitality industry for over 15 years, and a longtime lover of sake. He currently works at n/naka, Chef Niki Nakayama’s temple to modern kaiseki cuisine in Los Angeles (2 Michelin stars, 2019). He is a certified Sake Advisor and Sake Sommelier through SSI (Sake Service Institute), and holds a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from UCLA. Bryan is thrilled over the current international sake boom, and is committed to being an ambassador for this wonderful drink that is so rich in culture and story.

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