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Is Sake Rice Wine?

| Domenic Alonge

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There is a quote attributed to Socrates that goes something along the lines of, “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.” Well, before I became interested in sake, I thought I knew everything that there was to know about it: Sake was rice wine. For the longest time, I never tried sake because I didn’t care for “regular” wine so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like rice wine.

I was young and blissful in my ignorance and by that Socratic standard, none too wise. But I wasn’t really wrong, just uninformed. If the term rice wine leaps into your mind when you hear the word “sake,” you’re not entirely wrong either. The question “Is sake rice wine?” is a valid one, and it deserves a closer look to see where the two terms overlap.

Sake vs. rice wine: What’s the difference?

Is salsa tomato sauce? Well, yes and no. It has tomatoes, seasonings and other vegetables. But would you toss your tortellini in it? A similar relationship applies to the question of sake and rice wine. Sake fits the definition of what rice wine is, but it is much more than that.

What is sake?

A moment of sake is poured

Sake, or “nihonshu,” is our beloved alcoholic beverage brewed from rice using water, koji and yeast (and sometimes brewer’s alcohol is added). The process for brewing sake involves three additions (“sandanjikomi”) of ingredients in order to maintain a balance of starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol conversion. This delicate balancing act is known as multiple parallel fermentation and it is part of what makes sake so unique in the beverage world. The resulting mash (“moromi”) is then separated from its solids, filtered, pasteurized and bottled to become the sake we all love. Rice wines depend on a variety of microorganisms to saccharify the starch in the rice, but sake’s use of koji (Aspergillus oryzae) exclusively sets it apart.

What is rice wine?

Rice wine is a broad term that encompasses a huge number of fermented drinks made from cooked rice. In fact, if a country possesses a rice-growing culture, they are sure to have multiple versions of fermented rice drinks, all of them different in process and varieties of rice used, and all markedly different from each other. The most widely consumed rice wines include huangjiu and mijiu from China and Taiwan, makgeolli from Korea, sato from Thailand, and ruou nep from Vietnam.

Why call sake rice wine? Here are similarities.

Korean milky-white rice wine, Makgeolli
Makgeolli is an unfiltered, milky-white rice wine from Korea with a sweet and slightly sour taste. It may appear similar to nigori or “doburoku” (unfiltered sake), but makgeolli is made using different fermentation methods.

So to the extent that Japan is a country with its own distinct rice culture, it isn’t necessarily a mistake to call sake rice wine. But wine is made from grapes, and clearly sake is not, so why has the name persisted? The association has stuck due in no small part to the many similarities between sake and wine.

Taste

Sake and rice wine are both alcoholic and are best enjoyed with food. In fact, sake and rice wines are both used in cooking. The aroma of both sake and rice wine add to their appeal and can be simple or complex. Because sake is made from highly polished rice, it is generally less acidic than most rice wines, but both rely on a balance of acidity and sweetness. Both are complex, but in different ways.

Both sake and rice wine get some flavor from the rice itself, but with sake, the influence of koji and yeast register more distinctly. Rice wines are also made with koji and yeast, but the presence of other molds and bacteria introduced into the ferment also affect the final flavor of the brew. Learn more about the taste of sake.

Of all styles of sake, cloudy nigori sake retains more of the original rice flavor that is apparent in many rice wines. Some aged sake veers toward huangjiu territory in terms of sweetness, richness and depth. Here are a few sake to try that share some qualities of certain rice wines:

Hakushika “Kuromatsu” Snow Beauty

Hakushika “Kuromatsu” Snow Beauty

The rice-forward flavor and full body of “Kuromatsu” echo the essence of a good makgeolli.

Oze no Yukidoke “Ex Dry”

Oze no Yukidoke “Ex Dry”

Mijiu has a fairly dry and compact flavor profile, but sometimes lacks depth and umami. “Ex Dry” is likewise rice forward and dry, but with solid depth and a very clean finish.

Yuho “Rhythm of the Centuries”

Yuho “Rhythm of the Centuries”

With the depth of flavor, balance and color that comes from aging, huangjiu fans will feel right at home with this timeless crowd-pleaser of a sake.

Fermented, not distilled

Another overlap between sake and rice wine is that they are both fermented, not distilled. Whiskey, vodka and tequila, for example, are concentrated alcohols distilled from a base, but sake and rice wine both contain the alcohol created by the yeast and nothing more. Sake can be higher in alcohol than some other rice wines because of the multiple additions of koji and rice to the ferment. Sake does overlap a fair bit with huangjiu, which averages from 12% to 18% ABV.

The way it’s consumed

Sake and rice wine have further commonalities in the way that they are consumed. As mentioned before, both are used in cooking and are generally consumed alongside food. (Visit our Sake Guide for some food pairing recommendations.)

Sake is also typically enjoyed from smaller vessels of glass or earthenware, as are many rice wines (with some exceptions). This Sorisakazuki cup, for instance, will serve you well for sake or rice wine.

Additionally, many rice wines, just like sake, are consumed at different temperatures from cold to hot, though sake seems to be the most versatile in its ability to change its profile depending on the temperature. Consult our Sake Guide to learn more about how to drink and serve sake.

Sake vs wine: What are the differences?

Various wines on the wine barrels
Various types of grape wines.

So, undoubtedly, sake and rice wines have a fair amount of overlap, but what about that word: wine? Is sake just a wine that is made from rice? The truth is that sake has many wine-like qualities (and might even be served in a wine glass) but is ultimately quite different from wine.

Ingredients

Sake is made from water, rice, yeast and koji. To put it simply, wine is made when yeast combines with grape juice. The variety of grape used in grape production is much more closely tied to its identity than rice variety is to sake. Sake rice varieties are often included on the label, but the variety of rice doesn’t reveal the totality of its character the same way grape variety does with wine. (With sake, the yeast strains used and the method also contribute greatly to its character.) Some wines contain added alcohol, as do some sake, but with sake, water is subsequently added to bring the alcohol level back down.

Alcohol content

Though alcohol content varies for wine, an average number can be estimated at around 12%. Sake is typically 15%-16% ABV and can top out at 22%. It is normal for sake to be brewed to a higher alcohol level than when the finished product is released; brewers add water at the end of the brewing process to balance out the flavor of the sake.

Calories and nutritional value

Even though, due to pour size, you may drink more wine by volume than you would sake, there would be slightly fewer calories in that wine compared to the sake. The residual sugar from sake production is part of the reason for the additional calories, as is the higher alcohol content. Amino acids, which contribute heavily to the savory or umami flavor of sake, are more abundant in sake than in wine. Learn more about sake nutrition and health benefits.

Multiple parallel fermentation vs. single fermentation

Most of us are aware that wine is fermented from grapes and sake from rice, but what are the implications of such a difference? That both beverages use yeast is probably also easy to guess, but in winemaking, the sugar is already there in the juice for the yeast to consume. Sake brewers have to first convert the starch from rice into sugar and then ferment it. This two-step process, known as multiple parallel fermentation, is unique to sake and is closer in process to beer brewing than winemaking, which is a simple sugar to alcohol conversion. Get more in-depth information about what sake is made of and how it’s made.

Versatility and varieties

Having said all of this, to truly understand what sets sake apart from wine in general and rice wine especially, we have to talk about versatility. Sake is unique in the number of ways that it can be enjoyed. Different drinking vessels, ranging from tiny “ochoko” to bowl-shaped wine glasses, lend different characteristics to each brew and excitement to the tasting process.

Playing with the serving temperature can completely alter the way a sake hits your nose and palate. And because the sake making process is so complex, the omission or change of one of these steps can drastically alter the final product. Unpasteurized sake (“nama”) is completely different from its pasteurized version. A sparkling daiginjo and a chunky nigori are worlds apart, but both equally awesome. And as wonderful as sake can be when paired with food, it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of occasions that call for a glass of sake to be enjoyed all by itself!

Sake is sake

Although there are good reasons for considering that sake is rice wine, the term is more approximate than it is accurate. Sake does share some characteristics with rice wines found elsewhere in Asia, but is unique enough that the moniker feels like a limitation. People make certain assumptions upon hearing the word “wine” that raise more questions than they answer, in spite of the commonalities between sake and wine.

I firmly believe that with knowledge comes greater appreciation. And so, by knowing what sake isn’t, you can appreciate it much more for what it is.

Sources:

  • “Sake FAQ.” Sake World.
  • Takizawa, Yukio, MD. “Sake, Health and Longevity.” Veronica Lane Books, 2011.
  • Katz, Sandor Ellix. “The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World.” Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012.
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