Aruten vs. Junmai

  • By François Chartier
  • 23 Apr 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
Made possible by
Morikawa San. Toji of Tanaka 1789 x chartier  - Credit : Sake Tanaka 1789 X Chartier

When one looks at a bottle of sake, the first information mentioned is whether it is Junmai or not. Next is the extent of rice polishing, for instance: Ginjo or Daiginjo. So how did the technique of adding alcohol come to represent 80% of Nihonshu production?

  • Aruten Sake: Alcohol added 
  • Junmai Sake: No alcohol added 

History Will Answer All Of Your Questions 

Historically the practice of adding alcohol to sake was for both preservation and flavour. The first Aruten sake was made during the Edo period (1603 to 1868) and became popular in the Genroku period (1688 to 1704), a relatively recent development for a beverage first produced 2300 years ago. Why did they wait so long? Because to add distilled alcohol, you need to produce distilled alcohol. Shochu, Japanese alcohol distilled from rice, was created in the 15th and 16th centuries (it was first mentioned in 1546). Adding pure alcohol allowed sake to keep longer and to travel better during its transport around Japan.

Other more recent events created a push to add pure alcohol to sake: the First and Second World wars. Rice stored in the Kuras was needed for food as well as some sake breweries that were requisitioned for military purposes. With less rice available, production of sake became difficult. Many Kuras decided to add more alcohol and water to their sake to increase production and reduce costs. Throughout the period, sake production often included a little sake and a lot of alcohol, water, and sugar (sanbaizoshu). During these troubled times, people developed a mindset about sake: they were hesitant, believing that it was little more than distilled alcohol, that it tasted terrible and was hard on the stomach.

The alcohol that was added at the time was Shochu made with kasu, a classic distilled beverage made with kasu from Kyushu (kasu is what we call sake cake, which is the solid part left after pressing). Adding another Japanese alcoholic product to give powerful notes was seen as being the correct approach. Actually, the alcohol added could be from any source (usually sugar cane) from anywhere (usually Brazil or South Asia).

What Happens During The Process And To The Taste When The Toji Adds Alcohol? 

The key is to remember at what stage the alcohol is added in the Aruten-style sakés: just after the fermentation and before the pressing, when the tank is still full of sake (liquid) and kasu (solids from rice).

With sake, the goal is not to stop the fermentation because it is already complete. Neither is the goal to increase the alcohol volume. Aruten does not necessarily have more alcohol content than Junmai. Most kuras will dilute sake with water, reducing the percentage of alcohol. So, don’t be surprised to see Junmai with a higher percentage of alcohol volume than Aruten. Logic is not always the main rule to follow when it comes to sake production.

Some tojis realize that many aromas remain trapped in the kasu (solid parts) and do not transfer into the sake, which has already developed its aromatic molecules. Adding alcohol helps extract more aromas (and dilute some) from kasu. This addition has two effects : concentrating primary aromas and diluting some of the more subtle aromas extracted from kasu. The sake profile becomes straight, elegant, and crispy, with less background and complexity.

Of course, the addition of alcohol has an impact on taste and perception on the palate. The sake is said to be less acidic, and the taste becomes crisp and dry. The SMV (Sake Meter Value: the scale used in Japan to evaluate the sweetness or dryness of sake) can confirm the primary sensation, comparing the density of the sugar content and the alcohol content. A confirmed sensation during service: Junmai are often best served warm to help the development of their umami and aromatic richness.

The beverage world is amazing for its complexity, and sake is part of it. Many steps in the sake production process can change the sake profile and adding alcohol is just one of the multiple keys that the toji has in his hand, with each sake lover having his personal philosophy.

Morikawa San. Toji of Tanaka 1789 x chartier  - Credit : Sake Tanaka 1789 X Chartier