The Difference Between Sake and Rice Wine

Popular alcoholic beverage sake has been consumed for generations in Japan. Is it actually rice wine though? Both yes and no are the responses. Although sake is frequently called rice wine, it differs slightly from other varieties of wine created from fruits like grapes.

chinese liquor is pouring into a glass from a bottle on wood background

Wine is an alcoholic beverage created technically from fermented grapes. On the other hand, fermented rice is used to make sake.

Because sake’s ingredients and fermentation method are different from those of other varieties of wine, it has a unique flavor and texture.

In fact, some experts contend that sake’s production process makes it more like beer than wine.

Despite these variations, rice wine is still the prevalent name for sake. This may be partly because sake is frequently served similarly to wine, with an emphasis on savoring its distinct flavor profile and matching it with food.

There is no disputing that sake is an intriguing and sophisticated beverage with a rich history and culture, whether or not you classify it as a type of wine.

Sake vs. Rice Wine

What is Sake?

Rice is fermented to create sake, a classic Japanese alcoholic beverage. Although the name “rice wine” is frequently used, it might be deceptive.

Japanese sake and Pacific saury

Although sake and wine are both alcoholic drinks, they are produced in distinct ways.

While rice is fermented to make sake, grape sugars are fermented to make wine. The ingredients for making sake include rice, water, yeast, and koji mold.

The rice’s starches are transformed into sugars that yeast can ferment thanks to the koji mold.

Sake’s two-step fermenting procedure makes it a special type of fermentation. The rice’s starches are first transformed into sugars, and then those sugars are afterwards transformed into alcohol.

Sake gets its distinctive flavor and aroma through this method.

Although sake is frequently referred to as rice wine, it is really brewed as opposed to fermented.

Sake is brewed, whereas wine is fermented, and this distinguishes the two beverages.

Sake vs. Rice Wine: Differences

Due to their similar appearance and flavor, rice wine and saké are frequently contrasted.

Tasty sake in Asian restaurant on black table

The two drinks do differ in several significant ways, though. The following are some of the primary variations:

SakeRice Wine
Made from rice, water, yeast, and koji moldMade from grapes
Brewed beverageFermented beverage
Two-step fermentation processSingle fermentation process
Typically served warm or coldTypically served at room temperature or chilled
Alcohol content typically ranges from 15-20%Alcohol content typically ranges from 5-20%

The fermentation process is one of the key distinctions between sake and rice wine.

While rice wine is created using a single fermentation procedure, sake is brewed utilizing a two-step fermentation technique.

The components needed to manufacture the two beverages also differ. While grapes are used to make rice wine, rice, water, yeast, and koji mold are the ingredients used to make sake.

While rice wine is normally served chilled or at room temperature, sake is typically served warm.

In addition, sake has a greater alcohol concentration than rice wine, with a usual alcohol range of 15-20% as opposed to a typical alcohol range of 5-20% for rice wine.

In conclusion, despite the fact that sake and rice wine may have a similar appearance, they are very different drinks.

While rice wine is a fermented beverage created from grapes, sake is a brewed beverage prepared from rice, water, yeast, and koji mold.

Additionally, the two drinks’ fermentation methods, serving temperatures, and alcohol concentration vary.

Sake Brewing Process

Rice, koji, and water are used to make the traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage known as sake.

High-class sake to toast with sake

Brewing is a precise and difficult process that calls for knowledge and skill.

The steps involved in making sake are listed below:

Rice Polishing

Rice polishing is the first step in the brewing of sake. The outer layers of the rice grain are removed during polishing, leaving the starchy interior alone.

A crucial element in determining the quality of the sake is the level of polishing. The quality of the sake is typically higher the more polished the rice is.

Washing and Soaking

The rice is polished before being cleaned and given a water soak. By doing so, the rice is hydrated and any remaining dust or debris are removed.


Rice is steamed in the following step. By doing this, the starches in the rice are gelatinized and made more palatable to the koji mold.

Rice Wine Brewing Process

Although it’s frequently called “rice wine,” the brewing method for sake is more akin to that of beer than wine.

Sake is a Japanese national liquor

Starting with polished rice that has had its outer layers removed, the process begins. The level of polishing has an impact on the finished product’s flavor and quality.


After that, the polished rice is steamed to make it simpler to handle. Additionally, by gelatinizing the rice’s starches, this process increases their accessibility to the enzymes that will convert them to sugars.

Koji Production

The addition of koji, a mold that converts rice starches into simple sugars, is the next stage.

Aspergillus oryzae is grown on steamed rice to make koji. The steamed rice and koji are then combined and let to ferment for a few days.

Yeast Starter

Yeast is then added to the mixture to start the fermentation process after the koji has finished its job.

The combination ferments for a few weeks while the yeast turns the sugars into alcohol.


The mixture is pressed to separate the liquid from the particles when the fermentation is finished.

In order to stop the fermentation process, the liquid is then filtered and pasteurized.

Differences and Similarities

Although both sake and rice wine are alcoholic drinks manufactured from rice, their production processes, ingredients, and flavor characteristics vary.

Japanese SAKE and appetizer

Production Techniques

Sake is produced via a multi-stage fermentation process that includes the use of a unique mold species called koji. In contrast, rice wine is often created by combining yeast and steamed rice.


Both sake and rice wine are manufactured from rice, although the varieties of rice and levels of polishing employed vary.

Sakamai rice, which has a higher starch content than normal rice, is the variety used to make sake.

The rice used to make rice wine might vary, and it is frequently not as thoroughly polished as the rice used to make sake.

Flavor Profiles

Rice wine and saké have different flavor qualities. Sake is frequently described as having a clear, crisp flavor with a light umami flavor.

While rice wine has a fuller texture and a more pronounced sweetness.


Sake and rice wine have several parallels despite their differences. Both alcoholic beverages are frequently combined with Japanese food and are frequently served chilled or at room temperature.

In addition, both sake and rice wine can be utilized to flavor food during cooking.

In conclusion, while sake and rice wine have certain similarities, they are different in terms of flavor profiles, production methods, and ingredients.

Frequently Asked Questions

Japanese sake

Is Sake a Type of Wine?

Technically speaking, sake is not a type of wine. While both sake and wine are made through fermentation, they use different ingredients and fermentation processes. Wine is made from grapes, while sake is made from rice. Additionally, the fermentation process for sake involves the use of koji mold, which is not used in wine production.

How is Sake Made?

Sake is made by polishing and steaming rice, then adding koji mold to convert the rice starch into sugar. Yeast is then added to the mixture to begin the fermentation process. The fermentation process can take anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on the desired flavor and quality of the sake.

How is Sake Served?

Sake is traditionally served in small cups called ochoko, which are often paired with a larger serving vessel called a tokkuri. The sake is warmed by placing the tokkuri into a hot water bath before serving. However, not all sake is served warm, and some higher quality sakes are actually best served chilled.

What Foods Pair Well with Sake?

Sake is a versatile beverage that can be paired with a wide range of foods. It has a lower acidity and iron content compared to wine, which means it doesn’t clash with the acidity, bitterness, or astringency in food as much. Some popular food pairings include sushi, sashimi, grilled meats, and even cheese.

How is Sake Graded?

Sake is graded based on its quality and flavor profile. The grading system is based on how much of the rice grain has been polished away before brewing, with higher quality sakes using rice that has been polished to a higher degree. The grades range from junmai (pure rice sake) to daiginjo (the highest quality sake). However, it’s important to note that not all high-quality sakes are expensive, and some lower-grade sakes can still be enjoyable.

Japanese traditional alcoholic drink, sake


In summary, sake is a distinctive alcoholic drink derived from fermented rice.

Although it is frequently referred to as “rice wine,” it is not actually a wine because it is made using a brewing method more in line with that of beer.

In Japanese culture, sake has a long history and is frequently offered during important rituals.

Sake is a beverage that can be savored hot, cold, or even at room temperature.

Sake’s flavor profile can be significantly influenced by the temperature at which it is served, with lower temperatures bringing out more delicate notes and warmer ones highlighting bolder, more robust flavors.

There are a few broad rules to follow when it comes to combining sake with cuisine. Sushi, sashimi, as well as grilled meats and vegetables, are just a few of the foods that go well with sake.

In general, sakes with a lighter body pair best with lighter fare, while sakes with a fuller body pair best with heartier, more flavorful fare.

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Written by Brian Nagele

Brian has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.