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The Secret of Sake – Its 3 + 2 Ingredients

Tom Inoue

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Sake is an alcoholic beverage equated with rice. Though usually described as rice wine, it is actually more like beer in terms of ingredients.

So, what goes into a sake?

You’ll be surprised that sake ingredients are essentially simpler than the process of making it. Knowing these ingredients will make you appreciate what makes up your sake’s character, and will give you a heads up on potential allergens.

Be sure to check the list in this article before you enjoy sake!

Three Main Ingredients

three ingredients of sake

1. Steamed Rice

steamed rice

Rice is the major ingredient in sake. Rich in starch, it’s used to create alcohol during the process. To prepare rice, it is first polished then steamed. Polishing removes the bran, which contributes unwanted flavors. Steaming prepares it for saccharification, a process of transforming the starch into sugar.

2. Koji Rice

Koji rice

Koji is rice cultivated with Koji fungi. It is essential in saccharification. Mixing the fungi into the rice begins this process immediately.

3. Water

sake water

Water accounts for 80% of the sake. Soft water (low mineral content) makes sake sweet, and hard water (high mineral content) makes sake dry.

The ideal water for sake has ample amounts of potassium, phosphoric acid, and magnesium. This helps the Koji fungi and yeast grow.

Water high in iron is avoided since it makes sake rusty brown and adds an unfavorable smell.

To have ideal water readily available, sake breweries dig up wells to pump water. The picture on the right is that of Ishikawa brewery, and Ozawa brewery on the left.

Once rice, koji , and water are mixed together, yeast is added to start fermentation. For more detail, read “From Grains to Glass: How Sake is Made”

Two Optional Ingredients

Besides these three, sake may have two optional ingredients—distilled alcohol and seasonings.

distilled alcohol and seasoning

Distilled Alcohol

Breweries often add distilled alcohol to improve the flavor or reduce the cost of sake, or both.
Adding a small amount of distilled alcohol creates a lighter, drier, and more aromatic sake. This type is Honjozo-type sake. For this, the amount of alcohol up to 10% of the weight of the rice used for sake making can be added.

To reduce the cost, breweries is allowed to add alcohol up to 50% of rice by law. This is Futsu-shu or regular sake and accounts for 62% of the entire sake production in Japan.


Since adding distilled alcohol to regular sake dilutes its taste, adding seasoning is important. These can be sweeteners, acidulants, amino acids or else that gives taste. Premium sakes do not use any seasoning.

Ingredients and sake types

If you’re on a special diet (e.g. gluten-free), you’re probably extra attentive to what goes into your sake. There are small chances that distilled alcohol and seasonings contain harmful ingredients that you want to avoid. Use the quick reference below to know which type of sake you can try based on its ingredients:

sake classification by ingredients

Potential allergens

Rice or Yeast

Sake is made with rice and yeast. There is no exception. If you are allergic to rice or yeast, it’s best to stay away from sake.


Regular sake may contain wheat-derived additives. If you are extra sensitive to gluten, we don’t recommend it. Distilled alcohol may also be made from gluten-containing grains. But it does NOT contain harmful gluten peptides.

Other potential allergens

Some low quality sake contain additives, preservatives, and flavorings (e.g. MSG) that are potential allergens. These are often undisclosed and come from various sources that are often hard to track. When trying sake for the first time, we recommend you to choose premium sake (Junmai or Honjozo) among others. However, if you see an ingredient you’re definitely allergic to, it’s best to avoid sake to be safe.

Many still consider sake mysterious and out of their reach. But once you get to know the 5 basic ingredients of sake, it won’t seem so complex. Instead, you’ll gain a new appreciation for every simple ingredient that went into producing a precious bottle of sake.

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