I was recently asked is sake gluten free or not (some of you may have noticed that on some of our bottles gluten is indeed listed as an allergen). The answer, in a word, is: complicated.
First, let’s have a look at premium sake. A good place to start is with the raw ingredients.
NB – premium sake is Junmai, Honjozo, Junmai Ginjo, Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo or Daiginjo. If needs be, remind yourself of the classifications of sake.
From our How Sake is Made guide we know that there are four main, raw ingredients in premium sake:
Additionally, there can be two others:
Of these ingredients, the only one that could contain gluten is the added, distilled alcohol.
For reasons I won’t get into here, all non-junmai (often referred to, collectively, as aruten in Japanese) has a little distilled alcohol added. This does not make these sakes inferior, nor does it jack the alcohol content, nor is it added to ‘stretch’ the yield! Distilled alcohol is added (and the amount is strictly limited: up to 10% of the total weight of the rice used or 25% of the overall ABV) for legitimate and specific reasons that I will explain in another blog post.
What I’d like to say is no. In fact, I am: no!
In the EU, however, we’re not legally allowed to call sake that contains brewers’ alcohol gluten free. Why? Because the distilled alcohol may have come from a grain that once contained gluten (plus we need to cover our butts!) However:
The Celiac Disease Foundation states that distilled alcohol does ‘not contain any harmful gluten peptides even if they are made from gluten-containing grains. Research indicates that the gluten peptide is too large to carry over in the distillation process, leaving the resulting liquid gluten-free.’
Furthermore, the alcohol is distilled to almost pure and usually the base ingredient is sugar cane.
This is why I say no!
Now let’s have a look at non-premium sake.
Aside from having added brewers’ alcohol, non-premium sake (i.e. futsushu) can also have all sorts of other ingredients added and some of those certainly may contain gluten. So, in a nutshell, if you are sensitive to gluten then it’s best to stay away from futsushu.
As some readers may know, some sake breweries are starting to experiment with ageing sake in used or virgin wine barrels (or sherry, port, etc.) Some of these barrels may have used a gluten-containing, wheat flour derivative as a sealing agent, as a result some gluten may have ended up in the sake.
The breweries who do this are few and far between and will almost definitely shout about it on the label! Here at Tengu Sake we stock one such sake – Golden Amber. We therefore cannot recommend those with a gluten sensitivity to drink Golden Amber.
If you can see my logic above regarding added brewers’ alcohol, and will not explode if you consume gluten, then you can (at your own risk) also drink Honjozo, Ginjo or Daiginjo.
However, definitely stay away from Futushu.
That’s it. Junmai sake = 100% gluten free.
Happy sake drinking!