Fact 2: Sake is Not a Spirit

Saki Kimura

Table of Contents

    One of the most shocking sake experiences working as a sake sommelier in Tokyo was when I saw a visitor from overseas chugging a glass of sake. Surprised and curious at the same time, I couldn’t help but ask “Why do you drink sake like tequila?” Unexpected and seemingly surprised he responded “I thought sake was a hard liquor because it always comes with a hangover.”

    Because the drinking style with a small vessel reminds them of shots of tequila, and it is often considered to cause hangovers especially in the US, some people misunderstand that sake is a type of spirit. In fact, however, sake is a brewed alcohol like beer and wine.

    Difference between brewing and distilling

    To begin, do you know the difference between a brewed alcohol and a distilled alcohol? A brewed alcohol is a product of fermented sources. For instance, beer is made by fermenting cereal grains such as malted barley and wine is made by fermenting grapes. On the other hand, a spirit is a type of alcohol made by distilling to achieve higher alcohol concentrations, which fermentation alone can never do. To put it extremely simply, whiskey is distilled beer and brandy is distilled wine (beer is brewed with fermented grains and whiskey is made by distilling the alcohol obtained from fermented grains; also, wine is brewed with fermented grapes and brandy is a distilled alcohol originally obtained by fermenting grapes.)

    The ABV of distilled alcohol is high – higher than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof). The ABV of brewed alcohol is much lower; an average beer contains 5% and a wine has the alcohol content ranging from 7 to 14%.

    Sake is a type of brewed alcohol

    Similar to beer and wine, sake is not a distilled but a brewed alcohol, made from fermented rice juice. Sake typically has 15% of alcohol by volume, which is much lower than general spirits such as tequila, whiskey, and gin. In Japan, there is a traditional spirit called as “shochu” (it falls under the same category as Korean soju by definition in the US.)

    Though their pellucid color and drinking style are similar among these two drinks, sake and tequila are entirely different. A small glass, a Japanese traditional vessel called “choko,” is carefully designed so you can sip sake little by little.

    Then, why does sake cause a hangover?

    Nevertheless, some people believe that sake is a hard liquor because it’s often accused of causing hangovers; following are the potential reasons for this popular belief.

    1. Drinkability

    Although the ABV of sake is higher than other brewed alcohols like beer or wine, its smooth flavor provides the impression that it is a light alcohol beverage. This might encourage consumption at a high pace and often you don’t realize how drunk you are until you are wasted.

    2. Complexity of Taste

    It is said that sake consists of more taste elements compared to other alcohols. For example, if you let the beer’s content rate of amino acid be 1, that of wine will be 3 and sake will be 8. This large amount of taste components not only realizes sake’s complex and fascinating flavor, but also increases the load on the liver.

    Sake may carry dishonorable reputations as a headache-producing hard liquor for its widely spread but wrong perception. However, if you know the basics of how it’s made and how to properly enjoy it, you know it’s a delicate craft alcohol like wine. Having said that, you should sip it slowly and drink water as a chaser in order to prevent hangovers.

    Sake sometimes can make you feel sick as any other alcoholic beverage can, but it’s not because it is a strong spirit but because you don’t know so much about the characteristics of sake. If you drink with the proper knowledge, sake is not your enemy but can be your best friend.

    Saki Kimura

    Saki Kimura

    As a professional writer and editor based in San Francisco, Saki Kimura shares her passion for culinary culture with special focus on Japanese sake. Her extensive knowledge and extraordinary love for sake lead her to becoming a certified sake sommelier. With her unique perspective on flavors and versatility of sake, she guides you through new discoveries and appreciation that you never knew existed.


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