An article from Nomooo [“Driiink”] featured on Excite News addresses a much misunderstood topic – adding high-strength distilled alcohol to sake. (Click here for part 1 of the article.)

The article also points out that adding jōzō alcohol is not particularly new. It’s not clear when sake was first brewed in Japan, although the assumption is that it was after rice cultivation was introduced from China. There are records of the Imperial household setting up an agency for sake brewing in the Nara Period (710-794), and shrines, temples and lay people were brewing in the Heian Period (794-1185).

Records from the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) indicate rice mash was filtered to produce clear liquid and lees, then heat-treated for sterilisation – very close to the standard brewing method used today and use of pasteurisation before Pasteur discovered it.

The technique of adding jōzō alcohol was documented in the Edo Period (1603-1868), when sake brewing was fully commercialised. Jōzō alcohol was seen as essential to preserve quality and prevent spoilage. Modern jōzō alcohol wasn’t available, so brewers used existing distilled spirits such as shōchū made from sake lees [kasutori shōchū, 粕取焼酎] or single-distilled shōchū [honkaku shōchū, 本格焼酎]. So added alcohol has been around for some time.

If it has so much going for it, why does jōzō alcohol have such a bad image?

One factor is another added-alcohol production method that is often conflated with non-junmai sake, although they’re actually not related.

Going back a bit more recently in history to WWII, rice shortages forced sake brewers to use a method called triple brewage [sanbai jōzō, 三倍醸造] to produce sanbai-shu [a contraction of sanbai jōzō shu]. The alcohol produced by brewing rice was topped up with double that amount of distilled alcohol, then diluted down again to triple the yield.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t great quality sake. The method allowed brewers to produce high volumes at low cost, and sanbai-shu was much more popular than junmai at the time as rice shortages meant less milling and therefore more off-flavours without adjustment. Sanbai-shu was even popular enough to persist for a while after the war, but changes in the laws governing sake since mean that anything brewed by this method today cannot be called sake.

What about hangovers? There’s no evidence they’re any different with non-junmai sake, as the additional of alcohol is to change the flavour and aroma profile and not to increase strength. Jōzō alcohol is identical to continuously-distilled shōchū, which is what you find in umeshu or mixed drinks like lemon sours. If the hangover seems worse, it might be because of the false but persistent associations with sanbai-shu.

Finally, the article recommends a few non-junmai sake so you can taste the effect of added jōzō alcohol for yourself.

  • Hatsukame Kyūrei Bishu Futsūshu: A table grade sake made from Yamada Nishiki rice, cooled rapidly after bottling to preserve some characteristics of namazake [生酒, unpasteurised sake]. Mild in aroma, goes well with any food, a perfect everyday sake to have hot or cold.
  • Kuromatsu Kenbishi Futsūshu: Rich in aroma with bold umami, smooth texture and impressive depth, with a short and fresh finish. Slightly yellow, draws out the full flavour of the rice. Heating makes the texture crisp and enhances its sweetness.
  • Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Honjōzō: Well known to lovers of dry sake all over Japan. More rounded than the usual honjōzō, surprisingly light with a short finish. Goes with even delicate dishes such as sashimi.
  • Dewazakura Ōka Ginjō: One of the first fruity sake, dry but with an aromatic sweet-sourness that fills the mouth to create a very pleasant experience. Won at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) in 2015 and 2016.
  • Ichinokura Mukansa Honjōzō Amakuchi: The one for you if you’re not a fan of dry sake, this one is characterised by both gentle sweetness and refreshing depth. Although adding jōzō alcohol inevitably makes sake dryer, this one has an SMV between -5 and -3 [where 0 is neutral and negative numbers are sweeter]. Gentle, restrained aroma and a true session sake.

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The translations/summaries of Japanese language news articles and other content provided on this site are part of a personal project to increase the amount of information about Japanese sake available in English.

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All translations/summaries are © 2017-2019 Arline Lyons.

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