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You think it’s pure — but is it really?

by John Gauntner

One of the great debates among sake fans with too much time on their hands is whether sake that has alcohol added to it is real sake. It is interesting to look at the history, technical facets and economics of this issue.

First, a history lesson. Until World War II, all sake was made from rice alone. When rice became scarce, the government forced brewers to cut their product with lots of alcohol, thus allowing them to manufacture sake using much less rice. This enabled the industry to survive (just barely), while not squandering Japan’s much needed staple food.

After the war ended and rice stocks returned to normal levels, the requirement was lifted. But by this time, brewers had discovered a much more profitable way to make sake, and so the practice of increasing yields in this way was never discontinued. In fact, it wasn’t until 1964 that anyone began brewing rice-only sake again.

Today, about 80 percent or more of all sake brewed is sub-premium “table” sake, all of which has a healthy dollop of added alcohol. In the really cheap stuff, there are flavor-adjusting acids and sugars as well. Overall, only about 10 percent of all sake made is junmai (“pure rice”) sake, all of it of premium grade.

To illustrate just how profitable adding alcohol can be, let’s do the math (while keeping in mind that in the actual market, certain factors will vary greatly from case to case).

Sake has a naturally occurring alcohol content of about 20 percent, but for tax and taste reasons, this is watered down to around 16 percent. A typical batch of sake might yield 3,500 liters of sake from about 1,700 kg of rice, at 20 percent alcohol. Adding enough water (in this case, 875 liters) to make it 16 percent would yield 4,375 liters.

As an extreme example, in the absolute cheapest sake, as much as 1,000 liters of pure alcohol might be added to the just-finished brew, which would bring the alcohol content up to 50 percent. Adding enough water to bring it down to 16 percent (6,125 liters of water, on top of the 1,000 liters of alcohol) would yield 10,625 liters of cheap sake. That’s a whopping 143 percent increase in yields, or almost 2 1/2 times the volume of brewed product. No wonder manufacturers clung to the practice.

Next let’s look at premium sake, honjozo and ginjo, that have some added alcohol. In this grade of sake, the amount that can be added is strictly limited by law. Not only that — and this is important — at this grade, the alcohol is not added to boost yields, but rather for technical reasons.

One positive result of the practice of adding alcohol is that, decades ago, brewers learned that adding a very small amount of alcohol just before pressing can help loosen aromatic and flavor-abetting compounds in the fermenting mash. So in the realm of premium sake, adding a tad of alcohol is simply one more tool in the brewers’ bag of tricks to create enjoyable sake.

For a batch of honjozo, identical in size to our above example, about 170 liters of pure alcohol might be added. This gives it an alcohol content of 25 percent, which will yield 5,437 liters when watered down to 16 percent. So yields over the original 4,375 liters are, in this case, only 25 percent.

In even higher grades, like ginjoshu and daiginjoshu, even less alcohol is used. At these super-premium levels, the increase in yields from any added alcohol is trivial, especially in light of the time and money eaten up by the massively labor-intensive brewing of such sake.

Ultimately, sake is meant to be enjoyed. If it tastes good, that is all that should really matter. At these premium levels, no one can tell absolutely if alcohol has been added in the process. Furthermore, there is plenty of extremely enjoyable futsu-shu, or cheap table sake. While it may not be your preference, note that this type of sake, with its higher profit margins, keeps the industry afloat.

For a graphic representation of sake grades in relation to this information, readers can check out www.sake-world.com/html/types-of-sake.html.

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Hatsu Kame (Shizuoka Prefecture)
Junmai ginjo

From a small but well-known brewer, this sought-after sake is quite lively. Citrus-driven melon and chestnut notes in the aroma lead into a very clean and light flavor. Wonderful for impressing those that are sure all sake tastes the same.