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Rice wine: from origins to best ways to use it explained

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  August 4, 2022

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I’m sure you’ve already heard the many names of Western wines, but have you heard of rice wine from the East?

Rice wine goes a long way back in Asian culture that it has become a way of life—to celebrate special occasions, success, marriage, or even the most mundane events that nobody talks about.

Rice wine: from origins to best ways to use it explained

In this article, I’ll talk about the popular alcoholic beverage and teach you a thing or two about why you should definitely try this drink or even create your own.

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What is rice wine?

Rice wine is an alcoholic beverage that’s created through the fermented glutinous rice, yeast, and water by microorganisms. It’s a key ingredient in Asian cuisine and has an aromatic variety of flavors.

Its color is usually clear, but it can also be amber-colored or even have a greenish tint where it ranges in alcohol content from 14% to 20%.

Traditionally, rice wine was made by polishing rice to remove the bran, washing it, soaking it in water, and then adding koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae).

The rice would then be steamed and cooled before being mixed with more koji and yeast.

The mixture would be fermented for 20 to 40 days before being pressed and filtered.

However, these days, rice wine is often made with distilled alcohol or enzymes to speed up the fermentation process.

Calling rice wine a wine is not actually correct.

Technically, alcoholic beverages produced by fermenting the starch found in cereal grains like rice are not technically wine as such.

So-called starch or cereal wines, such as Japanese sake or Chinese huangjiu, could be considered more akin to beer than wine.

But again, the finished alcoholic beverage is so different from beer that calling it a type of “beer” would be misleading as well.

The organoleptic qualities of a fermented cereal beverage such as rice wine are much more like those of grape wine, and this is the context is often used for its description.

Rice wine typically has a higher alcohol content (18%–25% ABV) than grape wine (9%–16%), which in turn has a higher alcohol content than beer (usually 4%–6%).

What is the origin of rice wine?

Rice wine has a long history in Japan, and it is thought to date back to the 3rd century.

Interesting fact: it was initially made by rice farmers as a way to preserve rice that was not fit for human consumption.

In this period the beverage was restricted to the royal court and sacred sites.

Rice wine brewing rose to prominence in Kyushu in the 12th century and then expanded to the rest of Japan.

However, the production of rice wine still remained rudimentary: chewing steamed rice.

“Drink of the Gods” has long been a nickname for rice wine.

For instance, the Shinto religion makes extensive use of rice wine that goes along with the food offering.

Since then, rice wine has been an essential part of Japanese culture.

In the modern day, the amount of rice wine produced peaked in 1973 and then suffered a massive decline.

However, its exportation nonetheless provided the Japanese rice wine breweries a safety net to continue operation.

Process development was also made when the brewing process changed during the Second World War.

These adjustments included the addition of pure alcohol and glucose to the rice mash, which increased the output yield and lengthened the brewing process.

However, older wineries continue to produce their products using conventional brewing techniques.

Rice wine isn’t only native to Japan but to its neighboring Asian cooking countries as well.

For instance, rice wine is called sake (an alcoholic drink that’s a type of rice wine) in Japan, huangjiu in China, brem in Indonesia, makgeolli or takju in Korea, and tapuy in the Philippines.

Why should you try rice wine?

There are many reasons why you should try rice wine, especially if you love the sweetness and acetic acid of Asian cuisine, but here are just a few:

  1. It’s a versatile drink that can be enjoyed in many different ways.
  2. It has a wide range of flavors, so you’re sure to find one that you like.
  3. It’s a healthy alternative to other alcoholic beverages.
  4. It can be a great addition to your cooking repertoire.
  5. It’s relatively inexpensive, so it’s a great way to try something new without breaking the bank.

How to enjoy rice wine?

As for the reasons for trying rice wine, you can also enjoy it in many different ways:

Sake bombs

This is a popular way to enjoy rice wine in Japan.

To make a sake bomb, you’ll need a small glass of rice wine and a larger glass of beer. Fill the larger glass with beer, and then drop the smaller glass of rice wine into it.

Drink the mixture quickly before the rice wine sinks to the bottom.

On the rocks

If you want to enjoy rice wine in a more traditional way, you can simply pour it over a few ice cubes.

With food

Rice wine pairs well with many different types of food, so it’s a great way to enhance your meals.

Try rice wine with sushi, sashimi, grilled meats, or even just a simple bowl of rice.

You can also use it in cooking recipes, such as in this recipe for classic teppanyaki beef steak with sake & soy sauce.

In cocktails

Rice wine can be used in place of other alcoholic beverages.

The difference: rice wine vs sake vs rice vinegar vs mirin

Rice wine, sake, rice vinegar, and mirin are all different products that are made from rice.

Rice wine is an alcoholic beverage that is made by fermenting rice. It has a high alcohol content and is often used in cooking.

While this may also cause confusion, rice wine is different from sake.

Sake is a type of rice wine and is only fermented after it has been distilled, whereas rice wines can either be distilled or fermented.

Rice wine or rice wine vinegar, on the other hand, is a type of vinegar that is also made from rice, but it has a milder flavor than other types of vinegar, and it is often used in salad dressings and marinades.

Lastly, mirin is a type of rice wine that is used in Japanese cooking. It has a sweeter taste than regular rice wine, and it is used to add flavor to dishes.

While rice wine, sake, mirin, and rice vinegar are made from rice, they shouldn’t be used interchangeably because they are all distinct items.

Apple cider vinegar is an excellent substitute for rice vinegar, while pale dry sherry or dry white wine are suitable alternatives to rice wine.

Looking for substitutes for mirin? I’ve compiled a full list of suitable options here

Rice wine ingredients

Making rice wine is easy if you have the ingredients. So, to make yours, simply gather all the ingredients below.

  • 1⁄2 cup white raw rice
  • 1⁄2 cup black raisins (with seeds)
  • 1 kg of sugar (brown)
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • 2 liters of water (boiled and cooled)

Also, check out this quick video tutorial from City Steading Brews for making rice wine at home. These guys did a good job, and it was easy to follow instructions:

Where to have rice wine?

Now that you know all about rice wine, it’s time to enjoy it!

Among the best places where you can have rice wine are Japanese restaurants, Korean restaurants, and Chinese restaurants.

You can also get this shimmering drink of the gods at your local Asian restaurant or any sushi bar.

Just ask them about this drink and they’ll give you a list of options.

Even so, pick which one you think would suit your taste. Just be careful though; rice wine can knock you out!

Etiquettes of drinking rice wine

When it comes to rice wine, there are two etiquettes that you should keep in mind.

  1. It is considered rude to pour your own drink. Instead, let someone else do it for you.
  2. It is also considered rude to fill someone’s cup to the brim. So, fill it only halfway so that others can enjoy more cups.

Just remember to drink responsibly and to follow the etiquette of drinking rice wine. Cheers!

Rice wine health benefits

Aside from being a great drink, rice wine also has some health benefits. Check out some of them below:

  1. It can help improve your digestion.
  2. It can help relieve stress and tension.
  3. It can help you sleep better.
  4. It can boost your immune system.
  5. It can help you lose weight.

So, there you have it! Rice wine is not only a delicious drink, but it also has some health benefits. What are you waiting for? Go out and enjoy a glass of rice wine today!

FAQs

Is rice wine the same as sake?

No. Sake is a type of rice wine and is only fermented after it has been distilled, whereas rice wines can either be distilled or fermented.

Is rice wine high in sugar?

Vinegar and rice wine both provide only minimal nutrients. It’s challenging to compare their nutritional profiles because of their various uses.

The wine has 201 calories, 7.5 grams of carbs, and 0 grams of sugar and salt per standard 5-ounce (147-mL) serving ( 6 ).

Can you get drunk from rice wine?

If you drink cooking wine, then it’s possible for you to get drunk.

In addition, cooking wines also contain high ABV. Depending on the content, alcohol has an absolute chance of making people drunk.

Is Chinese rice wine the same as rice wine vinegar?

Rice wines are sweet with a light flavor and generally have fewer calories. Rice vinegar is similar to apples and other spoonfuls of vinegar.

In contrast, rice vinegar’s sweet acidity is similar. Unlike rice wine, rice vinegar can be consumed only very rarely.

Is rice wine considered alcohol?

Rice wines are alcoholic drinks made with cereals, mostly rice in East Asian regions.

It is sometimes called rino wines in Western culture because it contains alcohol that is similar to wine.

What is Chinese rice wine called?

Mijiu is a Chinese rice wine made with glutinous rice.

In terms of appearance, this is usually clear with balanced sweetness and balanced acidities, like the Japanese counterpart’s sake and cheongju.

Another traditional Chinese rice wine is Shaoxing wine, also called “yellow wine”, that is made by fermenting glutinous rice, water, and wheat-based yeast.

To be called Shaoxing, the wine must be produced in Shaoxing, in the Zhejiang province of eastern China.

Shaoxing is widely used as a beverage as well as a cooking wine in Chinese cuisine.

Final takeaway

Rice wine is a delicious drink that can be enjoyed in many different ways. It can be used in cooking, as a cocktail mixer, or simply enjoyed on its own.

Rice wine also has some health benefits, so it’s a good thing to grab one and improve your health at the same time!

Just remember not to overlook the drinking etiquette, of course, and only drink rice wine in moderation as it could knock you good!

Next, learn all about the phrase “Omae wa mou shindeiru!” and its popular alcoholic shochu beverage namesake

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Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.