Got a night of sake drinking planned? Before you indulge in the most famous Japanese alcoholic beverage, you likely want to know: What is the alcohol content of sake?
To answer the question, let’s first briefly look at what sake is.
What is sake?
Like wine and beer, sake is a fermented beverage. In the case of sake, fermentation occurs through the interaction of its four main ingredients: rice, koji, yeast, and water.
As the ingredients of sake are different than wine or beer, it’s hardly a surprise that the alcohol percentage of sake isn’t the same. In fact, sake is the strongest of the bunch!
On average, sake alcohol content is between 15% and 16%.
In terms of comparison, wine has an alcohol percentage between 12% and 14% while the average beer is only about 5% to 7% (although some stronger brews can climb above 10%).
This is, of course, quite a general answer.
As you become familiar with all the different types of sake, you’ll quickly notice that certain varieties don’t fall within this range.
Why is sake alcohol content so high?
When you see the difference between the alcohol percentage of sake and other fermented beverages, you’re probably wondering: What makes the alcohol content of sake so high?
The answer lies in how sake is made.
Sake is brewed with a process called multiple parallel fermentation. This is what makes sake unique among all the different types of fermented beverages.
Unlike grapes used in the production of wine, rice does not contain sugar. Before fermentation can occur, the rice starch must, much like beer malt, be converted into sugar.
Unlike malt in beer, however, sake rice does not contain amylase. This enzyme is needed to move the conversion process forward.
To combat this, sake brewers add koji (aspergillus oryzae), a special mold that contains all the enzymes needed to convert the rice starches into sugar, multiply the yeast, and start fermentation.
Whereas beer brewers separate saccharification (sugar conversion) and fermentation, both of these steps happen simultaneously in sake brewing.
This causes sake to achieve an alcohol content of about 20% alcohol by volume (ABV) during the brewing process.
Why does the alcohol content of sake vary?
Now that you know that the “natural” alcohol percentage of sake sits at around 20%, you might be wondering: Why does the alcohol content of sake vary so widely?
As we mentioned above, the percentage of alcohol in sake hovers around 15% to 16% ABV.
Sake breweries achieve these lower common alcohol percentages by adding water after brewing.
In addition to smoothing out how sake tastes, there’s an economic incentive to keep the alcohol percentages of sake lower.
To qualify as sake, Japanese liquor tax laws require that the brew be no more than 22% ABV.
Since 2006, Japan has also levied extra tax on anything above 16%. Each ABV percentage increase raises the tax by ¥17. Clearly, most Japanese sake producers would want to remain within the 15-16% threshold to keep their prices competitive.
Looking for a stronger brew? You’re not out of luck!
For an extra kick, opt for a bottle of genshu sake. This sake variety is undiluted with water and offers the highest alcohol content of any type.
The alcohol percentage of genshu, as you might have guessed, maxes out at the natural limit of about 18-20%.
If you really want to tie one on while drinking sake, seek out Echigo Samurai, a brew from Tamagawa Sake Brewery that sits, on par with a stronger-than-normal whiskey, at a staggering 46% alcohol content.
Of course, due to Japanese law, Echigo Samurai isn’t technically a sake, but is classified as a liquor because of its extremely high alcohol content.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s been a movement among breweries to offer “lighter” sake beverages for more health-conscious folks.
Sparkling sake like Shirakabegura Mio come in at about 5% ABV, about the same as a refreshing bottle of biiru.