One of the reasons that make sake gluten-free is the fact that it’s made from rice. However, there are other types of sake with “additional” ingredients that may break this rule. We’ll explain below.
Sake has become a trendy drink among sommeliers. A master key for any tasting menu because it combines well with any dish.
The paradox is that a few years ago, it was a drink reviled by the general public that offered an atrocious resistance, and it was challenging to introduce it in restaurants. Today it’s the secret weapon of sommeliers.
Sake or nihonshu, as it is called in Japan, is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages. Its basic ingredients are four: water, rice, yeast, and koji. Theoretically, therefore, sake would be a gluten-free drink.
Now, the problem comes when you realize that there are many sake varieties. And not all of them have only these ingredients, as in some cases, additional alcohol and even other ingredients are added.
A detailed explanation would be too long, but we can give you a simple indication to make sure you drink gluten-free sake.
To do this, look at the label or ask at the place you are in. If the sake is junmai, junmai ginjo, or junmai daiginjo, the sake is gluten-free.
If you don’t see any of this on the label, there’s a good chance there may be gluten in it.
This is easy to check and does not require a great knowledge of Japanese. It would be a shame to be in Japan and miss out on one of its most typical beverages.
What is sake exactly?
A few years ago, I visited Japan and ended up with some friends at an izakaya (Japanese tavern). With no wine available and not liking beer, my companions opted to order me a karakuchi (dry) sake.
I told them no, I was not too fond of sake, of course, I thought it was bad, it was hot and had a horrible taste.
When the waiter brought it over, I noticed it was overflowing (I later learned that it is a tradition to serve more than what fits in the cup as a sign of generosity and not a waiter’s mistake).
I gave it one last chance before unconditionally vetoing sake and tried it. I had an internal confrontation, as all my prejudices against this drink were opposed to reality.
A reality of cold sake with pleasant, perfumed, non-alcoholic flavors. I could not believe in those almost impossible nuances as I discovered little by little (and I still do) the number of different types that we can taste.
How is this gluten-free sake made?
Sake is a fermented rice beverage that generally has an alcohol content of 14 to 16% and can be drunk either cold (between 5 and 12C), warm or hot (but should not exceed 55 C).
Sake isn’t like wine or beer because it ferments differently. The sugar is not converted into alcohol, but the rice starch must first be transformed into fermentable sugar through a mold (Koji).
This multiple parallel fermentation results in an extremely elegant, complex, and extraordinarily fragrant beverage. It is pure liquid silk.
The elements: rice, water, koji, yeast and toji (master brewer).
To arrive at this complicated process, several elements come into play, and all are of utmost importance in the process and the final result.
The importance of using rice is that its starch concentration is very high. There are several types of rice used in sake brewing, including the well-known Yamada Nishiki.
Although it may seem strange, the rice is often purchased far from where the beverage is produced. The key thing about these kinds of rice is that they have a higher concentration of starch in each grain compared to others.
This rice is polished so that the outer layer (amino acids, fats, and proteins) is removed, leaving a higher concentration of pure starch. Depending on the percentage of polishing, a classification is obtained that affects the sakes.
The water in Japan reaches an extraordinary quality, which is why beverages that require very pure water, such as whiskey, find in Japanese regions the pinnacle of perfection.
Almost all the wineries (Kura, is the name in Japanese) have in the same cellar spring water that makes the sake taste in a certain way.
We can find hard water or soft water, and each type will be reflected in the sake and bring the terroir.
As I said earlier, sake is not formed from sugar to alcohol fermentation, but rather, the rice’s starch needs to be converted to fermentable sugar.
This is achieved through a mold called Koji-kin (Aspergillus oryzae). This mold inoculates the cooked rice grains and produces an element called koji rice, which is the basis for the rice starch to be converted into sugar.
To become an alcoholic beverage, there is one last step (already common to wine), which is to transform the sugar into alcohol employing yeast.
In the past, each winery had its own native yeast, but for years there have been a few isolated ones, and these are the ones used by most wineries depending on the taste they are looking to achieve.
All this would be very simple if it were done automatically, but the truth is that without a supervisor or Toji, this complicated process would make no sense.
The Toji knows perfectly how to react in each moment to get the drink to reach a successful conclusion. (Just what an enologist would do for wine).
They have an instinct but also experience that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Types of sake
To simplify this complex world, let’s start by talking about those sakes considered premium or Tokutei Meisho Shu.
These are sakes that can only be made with the ingredients mentioned above (water, rice, koji, and yeast). And these are 100% gluten-free sakes, of course.
Alcohol and lactic acid can be added. The rest of the sakes, those that do not meet these standards, are ordinary sakes or Futsushu, may contain sugars, preservatives, colorings, acidulants, etc., and, therefore, may contain gluten.
Premium sakes, or Tokutei Meisho Shu, are classified according to whether they have alcohol added (to extract more flavor but not to make them more alcoholic) and those that do not.
Junmai sakes don’t have added alcohol, while non-junmai sakes do. The second classification is based on the degree of rice polishing.
JUNMAI SAKES (without added alcohol) are classified as follows:
- JUNMAI: No minimum polish. (If higher than 70%, it must be indicated on the label)
- TOKUBETSU JUNMAI: Minimum polishing of 60% with a certain process that makes it special
- JUNMAI GINJO: between 60% and 50%
- JUNMAI DAIGINJO: 50% or less (more than half is lost and can reach 1%)
NON JUNMAI sakes (with added alcohol) are classified as follows:
- HONJOSO: Polished a minimum of 70%
- TOKUBETSU HONJOSO: Polished a minimum of 60% with a process that makes it special
- GINJO: between 60% and 50%
- DAIGINJO: 50% or less (more than half is lost and can reach 1%)
Apart from and complementing the above classification, there are other terminologies. Some examples:
- BODAIMOTO: refers to the most ancestral method of making sake
- KIMOTO: a traditional method for the beginning of fermentation. Very laborious
- YAMAHAI: method similar to Kimoto, but simplified
- SOKUJO: the most modern and fast method. Lactic acid is added to start fermentation more quickly and safely. It has a milder flavor than the two previous ones, much more complex
- NAMAZAKE: unpasteurized, difficult to find outside Japan because of its delicacy
- NIGORI: cloudy, whitish in appearance
- MUROUKA: not filtered by active carbon
- KOSHU: aged
- SPARKLING: sparkling sake
- GENSHU: undiluted sake, higher grades
The complex world of sake is usually best understood by tasting, especially because, in most cases, we can perceive the differences between one classification and another.
Personally, I find it difficult to differentiate the sakes with added alcohol from the junmai. Still, on the other hand, it is relatively easy to differentiate the aromatic sakes (Ginjoka, i.e., Dai Ginjos and Ginjos) from the more rustic ones with more cereal notes (Junmai and Honjoso).
As in wine, there’s a visual phase, which will normally indicate whether it is a young sake (water color) or aged (yellowish tone), cloudy (Nigori) or with bubbles, or on the contrary, if there is some kind of anomaly (it is cloudy when it should be colorless, or it is yellowish when it should not be).
On the nose, we can distinguish if it is a sake with fruity and floral characteristics typical of Ginjos or Dai Ginjos with notes of banana, pear, aniseed, pineapple, lychees.
We find cereal aromas in Honjoso or Junmai: toasted seeds, chocolates, almonds… Also, lactic notes (cheese, milk, yogurt) or even aged sakes reminiscent of soy sauce, caramel, bacon.
Overall, the olfactory tasting allows us to assess their intensity and the levels of sweetness and alcohol.
Interesting read: How to Stop Drinking Alcohol on Your Own
Finally, we can calibrate the sweetness, acidity, and the different aromas that we can notice and the finish (short, long) in the mouth.
The idea is to follow some parameters but try to create a personal tasting system and classification, as in wine, noting everything that comes to mind when you taste sake will help your progress.
Besides sake, other gluten-free alcohol alternatives
Bye bye beer
Beer is usually made from barley, one of celiac forbidden cereals, so as a general rule, you will not drink it unless it specifies that it is gluten-free beer.
There are more and more brands, and it is easier to find them on the market. Besides, we are lately experiencing a real “trend” in gluten-free beer.
Could you take advantage of it? Of course, some gluten-free beers are very similar to their gluten versions, so again, always look for the “gluten-free” label.
Cognac or brandy
Cognac is French, and brandy is Spanish. It is an alcoholic beverage made from the double distillation of wine. It has few sugars but quite a lot of alcoholic content.
It is widely used for confectionery, flambées… If you find it in any dish, brandy is not a problem, and it’s a suitable beverage for celiacs.
Tequila is made from the blue agave plant—a volcanic species grown around Jalisco’s state in Mexico. Entirely gluten-free. However, the label must read 100% Agave Azul; otherwise, there is a good chance it will have gluten because of other added ingredients.
It is easy to warm up with tequila and feel that dizzy sensation after a few shots, too. So please take it in moderation.
As you may already know, rum is made from sugar cane, which makes it gluten-free. But again, make sure you get a good quality rum without added artificial flavors.
This fashionable spirit is suitable for celiacs. But remember that alcohol is always in moderation.
Long live wine, as someone used to say. Wine is another suitable drink for celiacs. It is made from grape fermentation, either red or white, usually with low alcohol content and many health benefits, more than proven as long as consumption is moderate.
The same happens with cider, which comes from apples and contains many antioxidants that delay cellular aging, among other health benefits.
All sparkling drinks such as cava, champagne, sparkling cider are also suitable for celiacs. At Christmas and for celebrations they are a great option. However, be careful with having too many bubbles.
During the distillation process, the gluten from the cereals disappears, so it is a drink suitable for celiacs, but with high alcohol content, so be careful.
The same thing happens with vodka as to whiskey.
Before, it was not suitable, and now you can consume it with peace of mind because the gluten disappears during the distillation process. I personally like Tito’s gluten-free vodka, which is made entirely from corn.
Gluten-free sake and alcohol: CONCLUSION
People trying to avoid gluten, especially celiacs, must be super careful with whatever they consume. What it all comes down to is: LABEL INSPECTION.
Celiacs cannot afford to consume low-grade products. Everything you ingest must be from premium sources (which is a good thing anyway).
In any case, when in doubt, contact the manufacturer and never take risks. It is not worth it.