By Will Jarvis, Sake Matters

Junmai or aruten sake, what’s best?

Well, I could end this article here, before it’s even got started, because for the majority of sake consumers in a blind tasting, it’s just not at all easy to differentiate between sake that has been made with and without the addition of distilled alcohol. In such a situation, does it really matter which one you prefer? Just settle in and keep drinking it.

But there is a debate, one that’s been raging for much of this century, that seems to be ongoing because there somehow needs to be a winner. At least that’s what some pockets of stubborn sake enthusiasts feel.

Our view is that junmai and aruten are both delicious forms of sake, and that there’s better times to drink one than another, but even then it’s never that clean cut. If you’re new to sake and already confused, let’s give out a lifeline and a quick rundown on things. Brace yourself.

The world of sake can be bisected in many ways, and in a number of circumstances the cutting can yield a simple A or B option. For instance, premium sake (tokutei meishoshu) and regular sake (futsushu). There’s also pasteurised (hi-ire) and non-pasteurised (namazake) sake. And, of course, this junmai and aruten slicing is another example.

Junmai 純米, or junmai-shu, refers to sake that is made solely from rice, koji and water – the triumvirate of ingredients required in order to brew sake (although most have small additions of yeast and lactic acid nowadays too) – and translates as pure rice sake (純: pure; 米: rice). Purity is a cornerstone of the Shinto religion and sake is used to purify space and as an offering to appease the gods. It’s not hard to see the appeal.

Aruten アル添 is short for arukōru (alcohol) tenka (addition) and differentiates sake where brewer’s alcohol is added before the pressing stage. All sake legally has to go through pressing to be classed as seishu 清酒, the legal name for sake in Japanese. Aruten itself is not a legal term but works nonetheless, although you won’t see it written on a label, whereas you will with junmai.

Anyway, still with us? Hope so. Now here’s a big point to note, and one that disbands the myth that drinking sake gives you that headache. Even this added alcohol aruten category does not supercharge the sake into a fortified beverage or spirit. More water is added later on in the process that reduces the overall alcohol levels back to the standard 15-17% ABV (although it can go a little higher and significantly lower). That unproductive Friday morning in the office isn’t due to drinking sake, it’s because you drank too much sake. At least with Zoom nobody can smell you out.

You might be wondering what all the fuss is about then. Well, junmai as a category is enjoying a period of popularity growth these last few years. In many ways that is not difficult to comprehend because of the 1,200 or so active breweries in Japan, less than 5% are dedicated to brewing solely junmai sakes. The remaining majority, however, will be making a few junmai-shu within their regular line up but clearly then there’s room for some volume growth.

In North America, things are very different with many breweries in fact favouring no added alcohol sakes. However, this focus could well be down to local legislation which is a source of frustration for many in the industry, as debated in a recent Association webinar (to watch click here), and outlined here by Andrew Centofante at North American Sake Brewery: “I think the biggest reason most of us are not playing with aruten is the lack of clarity around the US laws. Adding distilled alcohol is kind of a grey area and depending on the federal laws and the state laws, it might not be possible or it might make things complicated in terms of labelling, taxes and sources.”

Award-winning junmai from North American Sake Brewery

Josh Hembree at Setting Sun Sake Brewing Co. goes a little further when he says “The laws here in America make it very difficult to manufacture and distribute this product. You need many more licenses to distill and fortify or purchase bulk neutral grain spirit and fortify, including additional certifications to be able to sell it.”

As we learned during the Association’s webinar, the situation can vary state by state, something which Patrick Shearer – Head Brewer at Ben’s American Sake – explained to me:

“My guess as to why the sake brewers in the US are sticking to brewing junmai primarily has to do with the difficulty in getting a distillery permit. My understanding is that to brew sake in the United States, you need a Federal Brewing Permit and a state brewing or winery licence. In North Carolina we are classified as a winery. In order to add brewers alcohol or neutral grain spirits we would need to get a Federal and state distillery permit, the difficulty and cost of doing so skyrockets.

Brewing junmai sake at Ben’s American Sake

Here, up until just last year, any product that has a distilled spirit in it had to be taxed as a spirit (a higher tax rate than wine). The product was then shipped to the state-controlled ABC (Alcohol Beverage Commission) warehouse and then repurchased by the producer or by the state-controlled ABC liquor stores.

This means that the product was marked up multiple times before the producer could sell it at their own bar or tasting room. Plus, it could only be sold at state-controlled liquor stores, the distillery’s tasting room or a licenced bar by special order through the state-controlled ABC store.”

In Japan, where things are significantly more straightforward, the driving force behind the junmai resurgence is down to the whole purity of the 純米 nomenclature as people thirst for a lifestyle where less is more and feel a moral obligation to have a predominantly natural shopping basket of free from groceries. Basically, it’s very on trend to be drinking pure.

Taking this a step further is the concurrent growth trajectory in yamahai and kimoto sakes. Sure, production levels can only realistically go up as they constitute, combined, around just 1% of Japan’s sake output. As I alluded to earlier, vials of yeast and lactic acid generally are the fourth and fifth ingredients of junmai sake but truly authentically made yamahai and kimoto sakes will depend on naturally occurring proprietary yeasts and lactic acid bacteria from the brewery walls and beams to fall into the tanks, rather than rely on their stable laboratory equivalents. It doesn’t get much purer than that.

The last point to make in favour of this pure sake by the junmai campaigners is that in the same way we like to know the source of the happy pigs and smiling cows that have made it to our dining tables, with no alcohol added sakes those key three ingredients (the acid and the yeasts too) are all Japanese sourced. This gives full Japanese traceability and a warm sense of national pride all in one bottle.

For aruten sakes, the added alcohol comes from sugarcane grown outside of Japan. It’s still pretty pure though in that the distillation process itself is as clean as it gets and even then, the imported distillate mostly gets redistilled further in Japan, and then let down with a little water before shipping to breweries (this is flammable stuff, remember).

Let’s just go back to a word earlier in this piece – futsushu. This category occupies about 65% of Japan’s total sake production. The reason for adding alcohol in the production of futsushu is largely an economic one. Bulking sake out with alcohol and the requisite amount of water to keep that ABV within the legal parameters is a very reasonable solution to bolster yields. There’s plenty of very decent futsushu out there too, quality is not an issue.

For premium sake – tokutei meishoshu – the addition of alcohol is not an economic one, and the amounts introduced are small compared to futsushu. What little that does get added coaxes out the more delicate and fragrant aromatics, making them more prominent. It’s no surprise that the majority of award-winning competition sakes are aruten.

“There are reasons to believe that the gentle coaxing provided by a small amount of spirit can unlock a heightened sense of aroma as well as a sharpening or balancing of some flavors that may otherwise not have found harmony with one another,” explains Byron Stithem at Proper Saké Co.

Byron’s junmai sake

It’s here that a highly experienced palate has their way in to making a call on aruten or junmai when blind tasting. The latter will tend to be richer, with higher acidity. However, these attributes can be masked with yeasts and rice varietals. The nature of the original rice comes through better with junmai, there’s less chemical trickery going on to confuse, giving the taster a strong hint at the category.

For Japanese brewers, with decades and centuries of experience, junmai making is, relatively speaking, a lot more routine. It’s a different story here. Adding further procedures into what is already a challenging production process isn’t something many want to get into, including Brad Saliga, Toji at Texas Sake Company:

“To put it simply, it would add an extra step that’s unnecessary. We get plenty of ABV within a short enough amount of time and still retain flavor characteristics depending on the style. I also don’t see the cost benefit unless you’re using less raw ingredients. But even then I’m not sure if it’s worth the hassle of blending exact measurements in a large volume of liquid.”

Texas Sake’s junmai sake
Andrew making koji, one of the three key ingredients for junmai-shu

Andrew Centofante agrees, saying: “There is not a ton of information available about some of the nuance around this. Certain sources say to add brewers alcohol but it doesn’t really say what exactly that is. I think most understand the basic concept but there might not be enough knowledge and so people won’t risk it.”

Brian Polen at Brooklyn Kura volunteers a different take on it, but one that will have many of his peers nodding in agreement: “It’s always a challenge to present sake to people for the first time. In the US, people often think of sake as a distilled beverage that is served to them in shot glasses. So, for me to explain to them that it is a brewed beverage, but also, in certain cases, has spirit added to it, can be very confusing for people.”

You can see why many sake fans won’t get involved in this dialogue as to which is better. However, there is one inescapable truth here. Aruten sakes generally have a better shelf life with this additional hit of alcohol but unless you’re engaged in some at home long term aging experimentation, chances are you’ll respect the brewer’s wishes and drink the sake sooner rather than later, so this extra shelf life isn’t such a bonus anyway.

It’s a complicated situation but one to be aware of, so our advice right now is simple. Enjoy your sake, whatever you have to hand. If it’s aruten then just understand the validity and benefits that the added alcohol is giving you, basking in those aromats and floating amidst that perfumed haze. If you’re having junmai, acknowledge the brewer’s decision to keep it pure, get to know the rice within and, if you want, feel a little smugness at the purity of your buying decision.

Lastly, if you do want to argue about it, be sure it’s with a sake newbie. The more sake drinkers we enlist, the more assured the future of this baffling beverage.


A certified sake sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and around the world. He has over 20 years’ experience working in the F&B industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality.