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Why does sake have added alcohol?

August 9, 2016

Why does sake have added alcohol

A while back I wrote a post detailing which types of sake you can expect to be gluten free and which might contain some. In that post we learnt that some types of sake have a little added, distilled alcohol (often listed as “brewers’ alcohol” on the bottle). Naturally, this begs the question why? Why does sake have added alcohol?

In my experience, this topic is one of the most misunderstood in the world of sake. The natural assumption is this addition of alcohol is to boost the ABV of the sake to which it is added – it stands to reason, right? Well yes and no. Obviously, if you add alcohol to anything you will increases its ABV but, when it comes to sake, this is often not the case. To delve any deeper we need to make a distinction between premium and non-premium sake (as ever).

Non-premium Sake (futsushu)

The amount of alcohol you can add to non-premium sake (known as futsushu in Japanese) is much greater than that which you can add to premium sake (remind yourself of the types of sake). In the production of futsushu a large quantity of distilled alcohol can be added to the final product, here the objective is primarily twofold: to increase yield, and to stabilise the sake thereby increasing shelf life. Of course, what suffers with all that added alcohol is flavour and so, to address this problem, producers often add all sorts of other ingredients to non-premium sake (sugar, amino acids, etc.).

All this started during the Second World War when, understandably, rice was primarily purposed for eating. Increasing yields of sake, therefore, was extremely important and so vast amounts of (much cheaper) distilled alcohol was added to achieve this.  Depressingly enough this continued well after the end of the war, it wasn’t until 1968 that the first junmai (sake without added alcohol) was produced!

In summary, the addition of alcohol in the production of non-premium sake is primarily for yield and stabilisation purposes. Again, for reasons I explain below, this generally does not result in an increase in the overall ABV.

Premium Sake (tokutei meishoshu)

First, the amount of alcohol you are allowed to add in the production of premium sake is strictly limited to 130 litres of alcohol per metric ton of rice used in brewing or 25% of the final alcohol content; this is much, much less than with the non-premium stuff.

Second, the reasons for adding brewers’ alcohol are quite different. The reason a small amount of distilled alcohol is added in the production of premium sake is to draw more flavour and aroma compounds from the fermented mash. To understand this we need to appreciate when (or to what) the distilled alcohol is added. After the main fermentation process has finished (moromi) you end up with a very large tank of freshly fermented rice and the resultant sake, the two must be separated from one another. This process is called joso in Japanese, we use the word ‘pressing’ in English so as not to confuse it with the optional filtration step further on down the production chronology. Just before that sake is pressed to remove the liquid from the lees, this is when the alcohol is added.

By adding the alcohol at this point it ‘draws out’ (ethanol is a very good solvent) further flavour and aroma compounds from the lees and in so doing, gifts them to the liquid.

There are further effects too:

  1. As with non-premium sake, the addition of the alcohol in premium sake goes some way to increase shelf life.
  2. A slightly more robust structure (not body); usually I find this translates to crispness with a daiginjo, say.
  3. A lighter body.
  4. A drier sake (particularly for honjozo).

But what does this mean with regards to flavour/aroma, will I be able to perceive it?

Junmai vs non-junmai sake: flavour & aroma

Just a recap: if the word junmai in the name of a sake’s designation (e.g. junmai ginjo) it means there is no added alcohol; whereas ginjo (not junmai ginjo) does have added alcohol (refresh your memory of the types of sake).

Typically, what this means is a daiginjo will be more fruity and flavourful than its junmai daiginjo counterpart with a bit more zing. It will also, probably, be crisper, more direct but will have lost some of the umami quality of the junmai style. Ginjo vs junmai ginjo will be very similar.

Junmai and honjozo sakes are not typified by bright, tropical fruit flavours (although some do have this) and so, generally, with honjozo, the overriding effect is to make the sake drier and crisper as well as to mute the umami.

Will you definitely be able to perceive the difference? No.
Are these massive rules of thumb? Yes. (With sake, when is it not!?)

Of course a honjozo from one brewery might actually be richer than a junmai from another, or a junmai daiginjo from one brewery might be exponentially fruitier than a daiginjo from another! But, over time and as you build up your palate, you should be able to spot these trends.

FYI, I think a great example of the difference between a daiginjo and a jummai daiginjo is Kimura Shuzo’s Hidden Glade and Silent Blossom – side by side you can really notice the differences and (in my opinion) they’re pretty textbook.

So how come the addition of brewers’ alcohol doesn’t increase the ABV?

This is simply because of the process of warimizu or ‘watering down’ to adjust flavour, character, body, ABV, etc. This is a perfectly normal part of sake making and the vast majority of sakes are adjusted in this way to around 15% ABV. Only those designated ‘genshu’ are not (that’s no strictly true as there’s no obligation on the brewery to label as such!)

Is adding alcohol to sake ‘bad’ or ‘fake’?

In a word: no. There are some sake purists who extol the virtues of junmai sake as being ‘traditional’ (and of course it is gluten free!) but this doesn’t make the addition of alcohol bad. Bear in mind that around 70% of all sake in Japan is futsushu, and slightly less than half of all premium sake has added alcohol. This means that somewhere in the region of 80% of all sake made in Japan has added alcohol. By declaring yourself a junmai only person you’re cutting yourself off from a lot of sake!

At the end of the day, find what works for you and what you resonate with but as far as adding alcohol to premium sake – it’s all good.

If you enjoyed the geekery of this article and thirst for more then please do consider our international recognised and Japan-accredited Master of Sake Course! Click below for details.