Sake Vs. Mirin: What's The Difference?

by Flora Baker

Sake and mirin are perhaps two of the most well known exports of Japanese cooking. While they’re both rice wines, there are still some differences between them in terms of their alcohol and sugar content – and this influences the way they’re used. 

Let’s dive in and learn a little more about each of these quintessential ingredients of Japanese cuisine! 

What is Sake? 

Sake is a much-loved alcoholic drink in Japan. It’s non-carbonated, clear and dry, has an alcohol content of around 15-17%, and it’s made by fermenting rice that’s been polished. 

 A bottle of sake and a sake cup.

The word ‘sake’ can actually be used to refer to any alcoholic beverage in Japan, so when we talk about the fermented rice drink it’s also referred to as nihonshu (which translates to ‘Japanese alcoholic drink’).  

The fermenting of rice into something both alcoholic and drinkable predates historic records, though it’s thought to have first developed in ancient China. When it arrived in Japan along with the cultivation of rice around 2000 years ago, the practice of making sake has been continuously refined ever since, and now it’s become a truly unique Japanese drink in its own right. 

So what does sake taste like, and why is it so incredibly popular in Japan? 

What Does Sake Taste Like?

You might think sake would be rather tasteless, as the flavor of rice is pretty bland. However, drinking sake actually tastes somewhat fruity. It’s a bit like white wine, thanks to its dry and smooth mouthfeel, and there can be notes of apple, banana, or even a nutty taste, depending on the type of sake you’re drinking. 

Sake can be enjoyed either at a chilled temperature or warmed up, though it’s more common to drink warmed or room temperature sake. The most premium grade and organic sake is served chilled to gain most of its superior flavor.

Sake for Cooking  

Cooking sake is only slightly different from the drinkable kind. Essentially, the cooking variant has less alcohol but also has a more concentrated flavor. It also wouldn’t taste particularly nice if you drank a glass of it; it’s both too salty and too sweet. When used in a recipe, you can use half the amount of cooking sake as regular sake. 

Sake Substitutes 

If you don’t have any sake to hand while cooking, the most commonly used substitutes are dry sherry or Chinese rice wine. In a pinch, you can also use dry white wine or rice wine vinegar. 

Benefits of Cooking with Sake 

Cooking with sake is much like cooking with other types of wine; it helps to tenderize meat and fish during the simmering process, and adds a level of umami to the dish. Sake can act as a marinade, or used for frying, which creates a deliciously crunchy batter. Some sake fans will even make rice with sake instead of water, which helps to add a fuller flavor to the cooked rice. Used in stir fries, cooking sake can help to balance out the strong flavors of garlic and soy sauce. For instance, you could try adding sake to this Japanese fried shrimp recipe!

How to Store Sake 

Once sake has been opened, it will begin to oxidize – though at a much slower rate than other wines, thankfully. Keeping it in the fridge will help to prolong its freshness. You’ll still be able to drink unopened sake within 12 months of the date it was bottled. 

What is Mirin?

 A bowl of mirin next to rice.

Mirin, also known as ‘sweet rice wine’, is a cooking wine in Japan made from fermented rice. It has a slightly syrupy consistency and is a crucial component of Japanese cuisine, used to season, glaze and marinate countless dishes. Mirin is also used for making lots of different dipping sauces, particularly for tempura, tonkatsu and sashimi.

While mirin is similar to sake, the major difference is that it has a lower alcohol content and a higher sugar content. The latter creates a perfect balance against saltier ingredients like soy sauce, while the former acts in the same way as Shaoxing wine, reducing the fishy aspects of a dish as the alcohol evaporates.

Mirin originated about 400 years ago, in the Edo period, as a derivative of the sake that was used for drinking during festive meals. Since then, mirin has become an essential ingredient in Japanese cooking – but it’s still occasionally used as a beverage. To drink, mirin tastes a little like sake, though it has a sweeter and more mild flavor, and of course is less alcoholic. The closest comparison is like a dessert wine.

Types of Mirin

There are two main types of mirin: 

  • Hon mirin: also called ‘true mirin’ or ‘real mirin’, this is the superior category. Hon mirin  has 14% alcohol content and has to be cooked to allow the alcohol to evaporate. It’s also impossible to source in the US! 
  • Aji mirin: this mirin (which translates to ‘tastes like mirin’) is a type of seasoning with less than 1% alcohol content. It’s commonly available in Asian groceries under well known brands like Kikkoman and Takara.

Mirin is typically used as a cooking wine because it has the ability to prevent meat and fish from falling apart while cooking. The alcohol and sugars present in mirin enable the muscle fibers to not collapse. This same ability also stops starch leaching from vegetables during the cooking process. 

Mirin Substitutes 

There aren’t any exact substitutes for mirin as it’s a rather unique condiment, but the majority of people would turn to dry sherry, dry white wine, or – as you might have guessed – sake as an alternative ingredient. 

As mirin is known and used for its sugar content though, it’s recommended to add a teaspoon of sugar for each tablespoon of the alternative condiment used so you get the correct flavor. 

How to Store Mirin 

You can store opened mirin in the fridge for up to two months and it will keep its flavor. After that, while mirin is unlikely to go ‘bad’ in terms of rancid or foul tasting, the quality will degenerate over time. 

Where to Buy Sake and Mirin 

We have plenty of sake and mirin varieties on offer at Bokksu Grocery. Why not sample some organic mirin in your next Japanese-inspired cooking adventure? 

Author Bio

Flora Baker is a writer, blogger and author based in London, UK. She runs the award-winning travel website Flora The Explorer and has written for Coastal Living, Telegraph, and National Geographic Traveler.