Is Sake Wine?

by Benjamin Knopp

Benjamin Knopp

Co-founder of Kurashu and in charge of spreading the word on sake.

Sake is created from rice, which is why you will sometimes see it referred to as Japanese rice wine.  But is this the right way to think about sake? Find out more on why sake is not a wine but shares many similarities in the way the beverage is served and enjoyed around the world.

Sake Drinks Similar To Wine

Unlike beer, where advertisements often recommend gulping down icy cold brews fast as the best way to satiate a big thirst, sake should be enjoyed through sipping.

Japanese restaurants will often serve sake in small ceramic cups called ochoko, which gives this method an air of being the more traditional way to enjoy the beverage. However, you can use different types of vessels that are appropriate for the type of sake you want to drink.

Reviewing the aroma profile of sake will tell you the best type of serving vessel to use. Koshu or aged sakes will feature richer, more intense flavors, so a sherry glass is an entirely appropriate way to take these in.

A more aromatic Daiginjo, on the other hand, would benefit from a stemmed glass with a wider bowl. The drinker can hold the glass without altering the temperature of the sake, while also giving them an opportunity to swirl and sniff like a wine buff.

If you were sampling a Honjozo, which is often served warm, the small ochoko cup made from quality pottery is your best choice. The ceramic helps to retain the heat while the sake sits on the table.

Not sure which kind of sake you like? Take our quiz and find out!

Why Sake is Not a Wine

Wine is created from grapes, with the natural sugars present in the grapes providing the fuel for fermentation. Rice does not contain any sugars, so, you first need to break the rice starches down into sugar. Before any of this can happen though, the rice is polished to remove the outer husk. How much each grain is polished will determine the grade of the final product.

Creating an alcoholic beverage from rice first requires you to break the starches down into sugar, which you do by adding koji, a mold (Aspergillus oryzae) that is dusted over steamed rice and left to propagate before adding the yeast and water.

Fermentation begins once the yeast and water are added and takes around 1 to 2 months to complete. At this point, the sake is filtered and aged several months before it is considered ready for market.

The alcohol in wine comes from the fermentation of sugars in fruit. Rice is not a fruit; therefore, sake cannot technically be called wine. The alcohol volume of sake is very close to wine, as is the way sake is enjoyed and drunk, but the addition of yeast in the brewing process makes brewing sake a two-step process possessing many similarities to making beer.

Sake breweries use variations in the brewing technique to create unique properties in their sake that differentiate them from other breweries.  As a result, you will often hear sake described with phrases any wine enthusiast would be quite familiar with like, aromatic, or smooth bodied with fruity overtones.

So, sake is not wine, but enjoying the drink and appreciating the skill and technique behind each variety's unique flavors, fruity aromas, and umami feel on the palate is what should matter most.

Find out more about how sake is made in our Sake Guide.

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