“Ask Beau” – “Do all Honjozo sakes taste boozy?”
I received a nice email from a long-ago friend who Googled me out of the blue and was very surprised to find out my current vocation. After briefly updating me on her life for the past 20 years she admitted to being a sake fan and asked me the following question: “I don’t like the taste of alcohol, and prefer sakes that have no boozy taste. Is it true that honjozo sakes all have a taste of alcohol because of the added alcohol?
Per usual the quick answer is no!
Now for the semi long answer!
Brewer’s alcohol is a reality in the sake world, but we don’t necessarily like to talk about it because it takes about 5 minutes to disarm potential sake drinkers, who perceive these type of sakes as being fortified like wines. They are not! In terms of premium sakes, the amount of added alcohol is so slight that it actually does the opposite of fortifying. .
Sake makers use added brewers alcohol, which can vary from molasses, corn, rice amongst others, to sakes to “gentle” and “lighten” the heavy Junmai – rice and water sakes. They use it as a tool to bring out bigger aromas in the sakes and to give them a softer and lighter personality. Oddly enough the presence of these added alcohols does the opposite of what you may think
The general perception is if they add alcohol the sake will taste boozier as per my friend’s question. In most cases I would argue the opposite, and I have done a ton of personal exploration and experimentation to this effect. We even have brought this question to life at past Sake Days, where we have set up edu-tasting stations to see if actual tasters could determine the Junmai (rice and water only sakes) from non-Junmai brews. (Please take note of the Sake Day announcement section so you can attend this year!) In most cases the tasters could not distinguish the Honjozo sakes from the Junmai sakes or conversely find the Junmai sake in a flight of Honjozo sakes. It was pretty clear that added alcohol does not scream out “Boozy.”
I personally do not like “hot” or “boozy” sakes, and I use the word hot to describe how the sake passes through the palate and the alcohol is at the forefront. I am not a fan of brews that are too boozy, but there is a huge market for these types of sakes. Many people do like the flavor of alcohol and seek out sakes that drink hot! This reminds of an old Japanese guy who I once met in Osaka.
We were at the same izakaya drinking sake by ourselves and eventually we fell into conversation. I presented him three or four Daiginjo and Ginjo sakes, which were AWESOME, and he was not impressed. He said to me, “I am paying for alcohol so I want to taste alcohol.” And it’s true, many sakes taste like flavored water to a degree and this is unappealing to those who like a kick! I told my friend from long ago that she should avoid sakes that have the “kick” and focus on lighter sakes with even perhaps a lower alcohol content.
So to conclude, please do not think or even generalize that Honjozo or added alcohol sakes taste boozy across the board. They do not. Some do but it’s more of a function of the maker wanting the booze to come to the forefront. If you want to try two sakes that represent this then try the Junmai from Miyasaka brewery for the non-booze and try the Ginjo from Dewazakura for the crisp boozy brew.
Please send your sake specific questions to askbeau2 @ truesake.com. (This address is not for general questions and I only review the questions once per month. All other correspondence should use info @ truesake.com.)