Sake is commonly known as "wine rice". But the process of obtaining sake is more similar to the beer one, according to Wikipedia. And its alcohol content is closer to a spirit drink.

Why is called wine then?

2 Answers 2


Short Answer
Sake is categorized as sake, and should not be grouped together with other types of liquor. In Japan, you need a license specifically for making sake, even if you have licenses for making beer, wine and spirits!

Long Answer
To help clarify, let's compare the different liquor types.

Is sake a spirit?
No. Sake is brewed. By this definition alone, it disqualifies itself to be classified as a spirit, which are distilled. Shochu (焼酎) would be a closer Japanese counterpart there.

Is sake a wine?
No. Sake uses a complex fermentation process known as a parallel multiple fermentation, where the rice is converted from start to glucose, then glucose to alcohol simultaneously in the same container. Wine uses the glucose from the grapes, making it a simpler process single fermentation process.

Is sake a beer?
No. While beer is like sake in the fact that it must first convert starch into glucose, this is done in two separate steps, making it a serial multiple fermentation process.

By comparing the processes of making the different liquors, we can see that sake does not fall under spirits, wine, or beer. It is somewhere in between wine and beer in terms of process.

Why is it often referred to as a wine?
I do not have the definitive answer, as there is no source that tells me the story behind that. But I can point the similarities between the two liquor types.

1) Alcohol content is similar.
A rough average for red and white wines combined is about 13-14%. It's about 15-16% for sake. Spirits like whisky are at 40%, so sake is nowhere near there.

2) They are both highly dependent on ingredients (location).
For wine, it's the terroir, and for sake, it's the water. This makes the location of both liquors' makers an important factor to the flavors.

3) Taste-wise they are close to each other.
Especially white wine. Sake can also have sweet, fruity tastes.

4) The way of drinking is similar.
When you drink a good wine, you let it roll on your tongue a little, try to find the different flavors. The same goes with sake (God forbid you'd just chug it down like a shot of bad tequila!).

5) They way they are sold are similar.
You don't buy 6-packs of sake, but a large sake bottle, similar to (but usually wider than) wine bottles. There are of course small one-cup sizes, and carton sake (similar to box wine), but the main method of purchase has always been the large bottle.

6) In the US, it's branded as a wine.
It certainly isn't beer, but if it gets grouped into spirits, sake would be harder to sell in the States, as it would require a separate liquor license to sell it. By counting it as a "wine", stores only need a beer/wine license to sell.

In the end, I feel like wine is "similar enough" to most people to use as a comparison. I said that sake is sake, but really phrasing it like that doesn't help explain things to people. Having something familiar to compare to makes it easy, though I do wish people didn't stop at "sake equals wine", since that isn't an accurate explanation either.

Here are few sites I referenced when looking into the details:
Documents from the Japanese National Tax Agency regarding liquor types (JP).
Homare sake maker website, describing the process of sake-making (JP)
A small article on the similarities of sake and wine (EN)
Oenon, another sake maker. Has pics of the sake-making process (JP)

  • 1
    I had the same thoughts when reading the question. While I called it a 'liquor' in my answer because this is it's closest analog, in practice it's none of the three.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 14:06
  • Thanks for your answers jimmy and @mcraen. I know way more now than when I asked the question.
    – Ivan
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 1:42

From the Wikipedia page (bolded for emphasis):

Sake (Japanese: 酒, IPA: /ˈsɑːkɛ/ SAH-keh), also spelled saké, (IPA: /ˈsɑːkeɪ/ SAH-kay or American English /ˈsɑːki/ SAH-kee)[1][2] also referred to as a Japanese rice wine, is made by fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the bran. Unlike wine, in which alcohol is produced by fermenting sugar that is naturally present in fruit, typically grapes, sake is produced by a brewing process more akin to that of beer, where starch is converted into sugars which ferment into alcohol.

The brewing process for sake differs from the process for beer in that, for beer, the conversion from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol occurs in two distinct steps. Like other rice wines, when sake is brewed, these conversions occur simultaneously. Furthermore, the alcohol content differs between sake, wine, and beer. Wine generally contains 9%–16% ABV,[3] while most beer contains 3%–9%, and undiluted sake contains 18%–20% (although this is often lowered to about 15% by diluting with water prior to bottling).

In the Japanese language, the word "sake" (酒, "liquor", also pronounced shu) can refer to any alcoholic drink, while the beverage called "sake" in English is usually termed nihonshu (日本酒, "Japanese liquor"). Under Japanese liquor laws, sake is labelled with the word seishu (清酒, "clear liquor"), a synonym less commonly used in conversation.

The bolded would suggest that etymologically and legally it would be classified as a liquor.

What this says to me is that a) it's culture of origin perceived it to be a spirit, and b) so did those who wished to regulate it's use.

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