Sake and other Asian alcoholic beverages


I don’t think they used the right word there with “distilleries.” Sake is brewed and not distilled, and kimoto doesn’t differ from other sake in that way.


There’s often a lot of confusion around Sake in western press. Cause it just tends to get inaccurately described.

Like we label it as “rice wine”. But likewise label a lot of Asian distilled beverages as wine. Like with plum liquors like Umeshu. Or Soju which is also somehow “rice wine”.

Sake would be closest to beer, fermented and grain based. But the Koji step takes the place of malting.

The actual sake makers seem to using brewing and brewery though, so it’s odd the article still made the mistake.


I think that it’s because people confuse sake (日本酒) with shochu (焼酎), which is distilled.

Because sake (酒) refers to all types of alcoholic beverages in Japanese, both are technically “Japanese sake,” while whiskey, red/white wine, beer, etc. are all technically “sake.”


I don’t think so. Shochu is not particularly visible in the US and Europe. Korean Soju is more recently. But again that both Shochu and Soju get labeled “rice wine” in English. The misconception is pretty old and long lived. Hard to confuse sake with a beverage you don’t know about.

It’s also not unique to sake or Japan.

I think you are closer with the second bit. If you translate sake as “wine”, and it’s all sake. Well then it’s a bit hard to tell what’s distilled and what’s brewed until better sources come around.

IIRC that “wine” thing is rooted in some 19th century translation weird with regards to China. And had more to do with the abv relative to European products. Brewed or distilled you’re rice beverages are lower in ABV than western liquors, but higher than beer.

So they get to be wine.


I think that’s just it though. Sake shouldn’t be translated as “wine” or even “rice wine.” I think that westerners have been drinking both nihonshu (brewed) and shochu (distilled) and calling both “sake” because they both are sake. It’s a case where the word means something different in English than it does in the original language, but the original meaning and the adopted English meaning get confused as time goes on.



But to correct that you’ll have to travel back a couple hundred years.

The convention of calling it all wine is old. And again, not limited to Japan.

The the other thing is people have not been drinking
nihonshu and shochu.

Shochu is not particularly popular in the West, and the export market outside of Asia is relatively small.

More recently, last 5 maybe 10 years, Korean Soju has been growing in popularity. And people have recently been drinking quite a bit of that.

It’s actually the fastest growing alcoholic beverage category in Japan, starting to displace Japanese shochu. And it’s picking up steam in China and SEA, starting to undercut popularity of Bourbon in those markets.

Nihonshu/Sake only becomes somewhat popular abroad starting in the 80s. And most people wouldn’t have been familiar until well into the 90’s.

Prior to that you had a 19th century love for “plum wine”. Umeshu, maesil-ju, suanmeitang liqueur.

Accurate popular press coverage of what the hell is what here is pretty much a last 20 years or so thing.

Yeah cause that’s how language works. Loan words often aren’t direct translations, or shift off their original meaning.

It’s not incorrect to refer to nihonshu as sake in English.

And the confusion over what’s distilled and brewed or fermented seems to be a lot older than awareness of sake in the west. Or even consistent access to Japan.


I think that it’s the combination of these two factors that leads to confusion. Neither is really all that popular in the west, so a lot of westerners who have actually drunk either one of them have probably done so either in Japan or in Japanese restaurants, where it may not be exactly clear what they are being served. In Japan, they both fall under the umbrella term of “sake” (along with beer or rum, etc.), while neither is specifically referred to as “sake.”

What I mean to say, though, is that the word “sake” in English (as it is actually used) actually refers to both nihonshu and shochu because the English language has not really made the distinction between the two clear, and Japanese people refer to them as two different types of “sake.” If “shochu” becomes more popular in the future, it might become an English word in its own right and distinct from “sake,” but until then, the confusion is inevitable.


Its becoming increasingly popular because of its low alcohol content but “clear spirit” nature. Allowing restaurants in some places to serve it in cocktails and shots with a beer and wine license as opposed to a liquor license.

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It does not.

You will not find shochu labeled as “Sake” on US shelves and labesl. Likewise you won’t see that in the EU. If there is an article in Anglophone press about “sake” it will refer to nihonshu, the fermented product.

The Japanese word “sake” has entered English as the term for fermented, koji rice beverages. To the point where we often label the Korean and Chinese equivalents to nihonshu as “sake”.

The break down is categorizing them. In that we call them wine.

The professional practice is to not equate them to western alcohol.

Sake is not rice wine or beer. It is sake. Shochu is not rice wine or rice whiskey. It is shochu, a rice liquor.

And the confusion is inevitable in that generally people are pretty misinformed about this. And non specialist press included. Your business reporter isn’t any more likely to know anything about alcohol than anyone else.

Just the number of times I’ve had to explain to people that Bourbon is whiskey. Or that no it doesn’t need to come from Kentucky.

At least as goes the US, not so much. It’s distilled. US licensing makes the distinction on that, not on ABV.

And not all soju is low ABV it ranges from like 13ish%, so high wine abvs, to around 50%. The low abv ones tend to be premixed with water and flavorings or fruit juice. Which may allow those to sometimes be sold along side wine and beer. Not on the East Coast though.

And there are basically mock versions make from neutral fermented base that are lower ABV. And are categorized the same as a wine cooler or hard seltzer. But it’s not real soju.

That also doesn’t really explain why it’s overtaking it’s Japanese and Chinese relatives in China and Japan.

Korea is actually in a bit of a trade dispute with Japan over this. The Japanese have been adopting Korean production methods and exporting Shochu labeled as Soju to try and compete.

The key thing here is the Korean products are really good, and the particular drinking culture around it is very fun. Mix it with fresh juice, stuff in a whole water melon. Share a carafe. Eat snacks.

Both soju and shochu sub really easily for rum in cocktails. And the whole thing meshes really well with the global tiki revival in the craft cocktail scene. Which is really influenced by Korea and Japan these days.

It’s a whole package. I’ve seen the market research on it, my former employer was a big importer of Korean alcohol. Those social connotations come up as one of the primary attractions. Soju is fun and young and hip. It’s for cooking outdoors and karaoke. It’s fresh fruit in the spring and rock music.

It’s been interesting to watch go down.


I think this is where it turns out that we’re saying the same thing in different ways. Afficianados will know the difference and laypeople will use the terms interchangeably no matter what the label says. I’m not going to lie: I lived in Japan for a few years before I even realized they were different things.

As for the popularity of soju, the combination of quality booze and low price is hard to beat. In Korea, it’s cheaper than beer (and I mean by the ounce), and it’s getting cheaper and cheaper in Japan too.


NY and NJ allow soju with 20ish% ABV to be sold in places with wine/beer licenses. This is especially important in NJ Korean enclaves like Fort Lee and Palisades Park, because liquor licenses for restaurants are notoriously difficult and expensive to obtain in the state.



As a professional I spend more time correcting the afficionados and the horse poop they spread than anything else.

I put this in above. But I really think it’s the combination of the quality and the ins and outs of Korean drinking culture as a portable and attainable social dynamic for younger folks.

The Chinese rice liquors are cheaper. By a lot. But they’re not terribly popular outside China and rapidly losing sales there. Apparently they’re pretty low quality and have some sketchy connotations outside China.

And honestly for my money. The Korean versions kick the shit out of the Japanese ones. For for both cheongju/sake and other fermented rice and on the soju/shochu.


There is a good reason for that. They generally taste awful and people try to use it like a clear spirit on the lines of vodka, rum or gin when its flavor profile really isn’t like them.

Soju & Shochu have generally cleaner taste profiles which disappear easily in mixed drinks. I have both an H-Mart and a Mitsua within easy driving distance of me and the liquor store in my community just went on a high end soju kick. So my exposure the good stuff is pretty high.

I would put sweet potato or rice based shochu on par if not better than quality soju. Barley shochu is definitely inferior to Korean soju.


NJ has some weird liquor licensing. They have dozens of overlapping classes and a regular, no proviso, full license is squirrely to get.

So that doesn’t really surprise me. They seem to like adding these exception rather than fixing the system. Where as NY fixed it’s licensing by doing away with quotas, and having just a few pretty simple license classes with no limits. Jersey tried, and failed, to fix it by continually adding new classes and bolting exceptions on to existing ones.

It seems like a mess, it’s kinda the worst of both worlds.


I can’t argue with that. Is there a Korean corollary for imojochu though? I love that stuff, but I’d like to try the Korean version if they use potatoes, too.


That I don’t know. Asian liquor isn’t really my area of expertise. I don’t think there’s a traditional equivalent. Part of the thing with Korean rice alcohol is it’s a little simpler as a “family”. And that makes it more accessible. I would imagine some one in Korea is making it, cause the Korean alcohol business is in a big export geared expansion right now. Whether that’s making it out of Asia or not is another question.

I think you’d have to do some poking.

I do know that it is specifically Korean rice Soju that is driving the global growth for the category. Chinese baiju a little bit, but it’s kinda the Asian equivalent of $500 bottles of Tequila. Chinese start up bros out doing each other on fancy bottles.

It’s not a volume concern and it’s not catching on much in the rest of the world. Bit in Russia from what I hear.

I really think that’s because it doesn’t have that “package” element of a whole fun, cheap night out that goes with it.

I tend look at this a lot like the cookie cutter Irish Pub. The popularity of Irish Whiskey and Guinness is heavily driven by that whole experience being dropped down in place all over the world. Soju and how it’s consumed and served. Just slots real easily into a similar set of things. But that whole dynamic is real appealing to the perpetually on the verge of broke, involuntarily work-a-holic under 40 set around the globe right now.


Wow, Great discussion.
You are all Happy Mutants indeed!
Last question about Sake. I drink both hot and cold versions and even had a bubbling one.
But how hot should it be served? I heard body temperature.


Every time I’m in a group at an izakaya and we order atsukan, it comes out as hot as tea or coffee. I prefer it cold, but there is something to be said for the way it is served hot.


The text book answer is a bit over 100f. But I think it varies by style.

I know the cheaper stuff that comes in a bag and is dispensed from a machine is often served too warm or too cold to cover up quality problems.

But that’s about as much as I know specifically. Once you get down to brands and types I’m not up on it.