You might often hear sake referred to as "rice wine." Even the Japanese themselves are sometimes guilty of it. So, it's no surprise that many newbies to Japan's national beverage ask: Is sake wine?
The simple answer is: No, sake is not wine. Sake is, well, sake!
Sake occupies its own category among other alcoholic beverages like wine, beer, or spirits. It's part of the reason sake is such an intriguing alcoholic drink for budding connoisseurs!
Let's take a page from sake 101 and discover what separates sake from wine with this complete guide.
How is sake different than wine?
The main difference between sake and wine is sake's unique parallel multiple fermentation process. Unlike sake, wine only requires single fermentation. To ferment wine, the glucose sugar from the grapes converts into alcohol.
On the other hand, sake is made from rice, a grain not a fruit. It requires a separate process to convert the rich starches into sugar for fermentation. In this way, sake is more like beer than wine. In beer brewing, brewers must first convert the grain starches into sugar. Only then can fermentation begin.
So, what makes the production of sake unique to beer and wine? It's that the starch-to-sugar conversion occurs alongside fermentation in the same tank. Sake is the only type of alcohol in the world created with this parallel multiple fermentation process. When we say that sake is a unique alcoholic beverage, we mean it!
Both sake and wine measure their flavor profiles in terms of dryness and sweetness. For sake, the sugar-to-acid level and gravity are measured by its sake meter value (nihonshu-do). A sake with an SMV of zero is neither overly dry nor sweet. A lower nihonshu-do (such as -2) would indicate a sweet sake; an SMV above number would label drier sakes.
How is sake made compared to wine?
The parallel multiple fermentation process is only one step in many to make sake. Master Japanese sake brewers (toji) spend years mastering the art of sake-making. Here's a quick primer on the distinct steps of how sake is made compared to wine:
The first step in making sake is to prepare the rice. Much like grapes in wine-making, there are several varieties of rice used in Japanese sake production, including yamada-nishiki. Compared to grapes, though, rice needs more preparation before it can enter the sake brewing process.
After harvesting, the rice needs to go through a milling process called rice polishing. Rice polishing involves stripping the brown rice of its outer shell. The outer layers contain most of the rice's fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. While good for nutrition, these "additions" interfere with the sake production process.
To brew top-notch sakes, brewers need rice grains with a greater rice polishing ratio. High-quality junmai daiginjo sake (junmai daiginjo-shu), for example, needs rice with a milling rate of at least 50%. Super-premium daiginjo can even achieve ratios as low as 23%!
Regular junmai and honjozo sakes need rice polished to 70% of the grain's original size. Good quality junmai ginjo (junmai ginjo-shu) sits in between with at least a 60% milling rate.
Once polished, the rice flour (nuka) is washed off of the starchy core. The rice is then soaked to absorb water for the steaming process. After the polished rice is steamed, the brewer can move to the next step in the process.
In comparison, grape preparation in wine-making involves only crushing and pressing. For millennia, winemakers would stamp the grapes with their feet. Today, crushing grapes is done with mechanical presses. It's quicker and more sanitary—even if less festive!
Koji rice production
One of the most significant differences between sake and wine is the use of koji (or koji-kin). In fact, koji is one of the most important sake ingredients!
Koji is the Japanese name for aspergillus oryzae. It's a special type of mold used to break sake rice starch into sugar.
To make koji rice, the brewer moves a sample of the steamed rice into the koji-muro. This special room is designed with the perfect conditions to allow koji to grow. The rice is spread out on a table and sprinkled with koji spores. Over the next couple of days, the koji mold proliferates and breaks down the starch into glucose.
Yeast starter (shubo)
When the koji rice is ready, it's moved into another tank along with yeast, steamed rice, and hot water. In this step, the yeast multiplies to form a yeast starter (shubo). There's no equivalent step in wine-making to creating the yeast starter.
Once the shubo is ready, it's added to a larger fermentation tank. Over the next four days, more steamed rice, koji rice, yeast, and water is thrown into the mix. The traditional process (kimoto) used wooden poles to create a paste. It's since been simplified into a method that forgoes the labor-intensive paste mixing (yamahai). In both cases, the result is a mash called moromi.
The moromi is then left to ferment. Sake fermentation usually takes between 18 to 32 days. Wine fermentation, on the other hand, takes anywhere between 10 days to one month.
Pressing (joso) & filtration
After fermentation, both sake and wine undergo clarification and filtration. For sake, this begins with pressing, called joso in Japanese. During joso, the sake is extracted from the mash, leaving the fermented rice solids behind. Traditionally, sake brewers would squeeze the sake out of canvas bags. Although some brewers still adhere to this tradition, most now use mechanical presses.
Once pressed, the sake is set aside. At this stage, it's often also pasteurized. It helps remove any active cultures or enzymes before it's filtered for clarity. The exception is nigori sake. This cloudy sake is coarsely pressed, leaving rice solids (sake lees) suspended in the brew.
Wine also undergoes clarification & filtration after fermentation is complete. Often, wines are siphoned between barrels/tanks to leave solids behind. At the same time, the wine can also be filtered through coarse or fine filters.
Unlike sake brewers, winemakers sometimes add other ingredients like egg whites or clay. In this process, called fining, the additional ingredients bind to the solids, helping them stay in the bottom of the original vessel.
Aging & bottling
For both wine and sake, the final stages of the journey are aging & bottling.
Most sake is aged for approximately six months. The exception is koshu or aged sake. This premium sake variety is rarer and more expensive than other types of sake. It's aged for about three to five years. It tends to import more umami flavors onto the sake.
Traditionally, breweries aged Japanese sake in cedar barrels tied together with bamboo. Outside of a select style of sake called taruzake, it's not as common to age sake in wooden casks these days.
Wine aging is less straightforward. Not all wines are aged in barrels before bottling. If barrel aging is needed, red wines are typically aged longer than white wines. The aging period can be anywhere from 1 to 2 years.
Once bottled, it doesn't get more straightforward for wine. Wine connoisseurs may "cellar" wines from one year to several decades, depending on the varietal.
Sake, on the other hand, is best when consumed fresh. Even when sake is stored correctly, a bottle of sake will only last for about 1 to 2 years. Unpasteurized sake (namazake) is even more temperamental. You'll need to consume it within six months.
Once opened, you'll need to drink your sake within no more than 2 to 3 weeks. Any longer, and the sake may spoil, and the taste of sake will be affected.
What is the alcohol content of sake vs. wine?
One of the main reasons sake is often called Japanese rice wine is its similar alcohol content to wine. On average, the alcohol content of sake is about 15% to 16%. In comparison, the alcohol percentage of wine is usually between 12% and 14%.
One exception is genshu sake (undiluted sake). Genshu is undiluted with water. It has an ABV percentage approaching the natural limit of alcohol in sake between 18% and 20%.
Sparkling sake and flavored sake is often lower in average alcohol by volume, too. Sparkling sake can come in at as little as 5% ABV.
Does sake have the same health benefits as wine?
Much like drinking wine in moderation, research shows the health benefits of drinking sake.
Sake contains several important amino acids and enzymes. These compounds are shown to have anti-aging benefits. They can also reduce the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. It's even shown promise in slowing down degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer's.
Like other fermented drinks, sake can be beneficial for gut health. It also lacks sulfites or tannins and offers a lower sugar content than wine. Not a fan of the head-splitting hangover other alcoholic beverages are famous for? Drinking sake might be the answer.
How do you serve sake versus wine?
Both sake and wine are served at various temperatures. The temperature differences between them, however, are striking.
Full-bodied red wines are served anywhere between 60ºF and 70ºF (or about room temperature). White wines are at their best anywhere from 40ºF to 50ºF.
Sake, on the other hand, is served both hot and cold.
Drinking sake warm has long been a tradition in Japan. Traditionally, warming sake helped to cover up cedar flavors from the aging process. Today, heating sake is more common with cheaper sake. Hot sake is served piping hot at around 122ºF. It's often warmed in a porcelain bottle (tokkuri) and served in small ceramic cups (ochoko).
High-quality sake is often served cold. Serving premium sake cold brings out its most desirable flavors. Although you can drink chilled sake from special sake cups, many high-end restaurants now prefer wine glasses.