What is the Alcohol Content of Sake?

Got a night of sake drinking planned? Before you indulge in this famous Japanese alcoholic beverage, you'll want to know: What is the alcohol content of sake?

To answer the question, let's first look at what sake is.

What is sake?

Like wine and beer, sake is a fermented beverage. And although it's often called Japanese rice wine, the label's not quite accurate. Sake is closer to beer in its brewing methods. The ingredients of Japan's national beverage, though, are only half-similar. In Japanese sake, fermentation occurs with the interaction of its four main ingredients: rice, koji, yeast, and water.

The rice is key in brewing high-quality sake. Before brewing, sake rice goes through an extensive milling process. Milling removes the outer layer of the unpolished rice grain to leave the dense starch core. Super premium sake like daiginjo features rice polishing ratios as high as 23 percent.

Steamed and polished rice is then sprinkled with koji mold to start converting the rice starch to sugar. The koji rice is then combined with yeast, steamed rice, hot water to create a starter mash. Once the yeast colonizes the starter mash, it's sent to a larger tank to ferment.

As you can see, the ingredients and production process of this fermented rice beverage are different than wine and beer. It's no surprise that the alcohol percentage of sake isn't the same either. In fact, sake is the strongest drink of the bunch!

On average, sake alcohol content is between 15% and 16%.

In comparison, wine has an alcohol percentage between 12% and 14%. The average beer is only about 5% to 7%. (Although some stronger brews can climb above 10%.)

Of course, this is very a general answer.

As you learn about the different types of sake, you'll notice that not all varieties fall within this range.

Why is sake alcohol content so high?

The difference between the alcohol percentage of sake and other fermented beverages is clear. Now, 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.

Barrels at Brewery

Unlike malt in beer, sake rice does not contain amylase. Sake brewers need this enzyme to move the conversion process forward.

To combat this, sake brewers add koji (aspergillus oryzae). This special mold contains all the enzymes needed to convert the rice starches into sugar. Only then can the yeast multiply to start the fermentation process.

Beer brewers separate saccharification (sugar conversion) and fermentation. In sake brewing, both of these steps happen at the same time.

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?

So, you now know that the "natural" alcohol percentage of sake sits at around 20%. 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.

Besides 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. Genshu sake offers the highest alcohol content of any type.

The alcohol percentage of genshu (undiluted sake) maxes out at the natural limit of about 18 to 20%.

Want to really tie one on while drinking sake? Seek out Echigo Samurai. This brew from Tamagawa Sake Brewery sits on par with a stronger-than-normal whiskey. The alcohol content of Echigo Samurai soars to a staggering 46%.

Of course, due to Japanese law, Echigo Samurai isn't technically a sake. In Japan, it's classified as a liquor because of its extremely high alcohol content.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can now also find lower alcohol content sake. Many Japanese sake breweries now brew "lighter" sake beverages for health-conscious folks.

Sparkling sake like Shirakabegura Mio sweep in at about 5% ABV. The percentage of this low alcohol sake is about the same as a refreshing bottle of biiru.

These lighter-bodied sparkling sakes are generally sweeter. Yet, they're also lower in calories than other varieties including junmai daiginjo, junmai ginjo, and nigori. They're a healthier alcoholic drink choice than sugar-laded cocktails.