Rice Wine

A bottle of cheongju

A bottle of cheongju, a Korean rice wine

Rice wine is an alcoholic beverage made from rice. Unlike true wine, which is made by fermentation of naturally sweet grapes and other fruit, “rice wine” is made from the fermentation of rice starch converted to sugars.

This process is akin to that used to produce beer. However, beer production employs a mashing process to convert starch to sugars, whereas rice wine uses the different amylolytic process.[no_toc]

Sake is often referred to in English-speaking countries as “rice wine”; however, this usage is a misnomer. Sake is produced by means of a brewing process similar to that which is used for beer. Thus, sake can be more accurately referred to as “rice beer” rather than “rice wine”.

Alcoholic beverages distilled from rice were exclusive to East and Southeast Asian countries, with knowledge of the distillation process reaching India and parts of South Asia later through trade. Rice brew typically has a higher alcohol content (18–25%) than wine (10–20%), which in turn has a higher alcohol content than beer (3–8%).

Rice wine is much used in Chinese and other East Asian cuisines. A common substitute for it is dry pale sherry.

Types of Rice Wine

Some types of rice wine are:

  • Amazake – low-alcohol Japanese rice drink
  • Ang Jiu – Chinese red rice wine, popular among the Foo Chow Chinese (Malaysia, China)
  • Ara – Bhutanese rice, millet, or maize wine
  • Brem – Balinese rice wine
  • Cheongju – Korean rice wine
    • Beopju – a variety of cheongju
  • Choujiu – A milky glutinous rice wine popular in Xi’an, China
  • Cơm rượu – A Vietnamese dessert consisting of rice balls in mildly alcoholic, thick, milky rice wine
  • Gamju – A milky, sweet rice wine from Korea
  • Hadia – Rice beer made after fermentation in Chottanagpur regions of eastern Indian states of Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal (India)
  • Huangjiu – A Chinese fermented rice wine, literally “yellow wine” or “yellow liquor”, with colours varying from clear to brown or brownish red. Famous varieties include those produced in Shaoxing. Used for both drinking and cooking.
  • Jiuniang – A Chinese soup- or pudding-like dessert made from fermented glutinous rice in a mildly alcoholic rice wine
  • Kulapo – A reddish rice wine with strong odour and alcohol content from the Philippines
  • Lao-Lao – A clear rice wine from Laos
  • Lihing – Kadazan rice wine (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo)
  • Makgeolli – a milky traditional rice wine indigenous to Korea
  • Mijiu – a clear, sweet Chinese rice wine/liqueur made from fermented glutinous rice, drunk as a beverage, used in cooking, or served as a dessert called jiuniang or laozao in southern China. Can be considered a category of huangjiu.
  • Nigorizake – a cloudy, sweet, white, rice sake made from fermented glutinous rice, drunk as a beverage, used in cooking in Japan. Can be considered a category of Sake.
  • Pangasi – Rice wine from Mindanao in the Philippines.
  • Raksi – Tibetan and Nepali rice wine
  • Rasi the refined wine of Hadia
  • Rượu đế – a distilled liquor from Vietnam, made of either glutinous or non-glutinous rice
  • Rượu cần – Vietnamese rice wine drunk through long, thin bamboo tubes
  • Rượu nếp – Sweet, milky Vietnamese rice wine made from sticky rice
  • Sake – Japanese rice beer
  • Sato – A rice wine originating in the Isan region of Thailand
  • Sonti – Indian rice wine
  • Tapuy – Clear rice wine from the Mountain Province in the Philippines, also called Tapey and Bayah
  • Tapai – Kadazandusun rice wine (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo)
  • Tuak – Dayak rice wine (Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo)
  • Thi– Kayan rice wine,served in a clay-pot with a straw to sip (Kayah State, Myanmar).

Rice Wine Substitutes

Rice wine plays a major role in Chinese cuisine, possibly coming second only to soy sauce in importance. Made from fermented glutinous rice or millet, rice wine is used to tenderise meat and seafood in marinades, and to impart flavour to food. Rice wine even forms the basis of an herbal soup meant to help new mothers recover quickly after giving birth.

Unfortunately, while rice wine is readily available at Chinese/Asian groceries, it is one of the few must-have Chinese ingredients that is not easy to find at regular local supermarkets.

Suggested Substitutes:

Pale Dry Sherry – Available at liquor stores, this is the most commonly recommended substitute for rice wine. It comes closest in flavour to Shaoxing rice wine (also spelled Shao-hsing or Shaohsing), an amber coloured wine made with glutinous rice, wheat yeast and spring water. Since rice wine can be hard to find, many recipes will only have dry sherry in the ingredients list, not even giving rice wine as an option.

Gin – While Shaoxing rice wine is commonly recommended because of its consistent high quality, there are many types of rice wines in China. Gin comes closer in flavour to the white rice wines than dry sherry. Feel free to give it a try if you like.

Other Possibilities

  • Dry White Wine – While the flavour is not the same, it makes an acceptable substitute for Chinese rice wine in marinades.
    Non-alcoholic
  • Apple juice or white grape juice – The acid in the juice acts as a tenderiser, making it an acceptable substitute for rice wine in stir-fry marinades. Again, the flavour won’t be quite the same.

What to Avoid

  • Cooking wine – Sold in local supermarkets, cooking wines are overly salted and have a different flavour than Chinese rice wine.
  • Chinese Rice Wine Vinegars – these are vinegars, not wines.

What About Sake?

Commonly referred to as the Japanese version of rice wine (although it actually has more in common with brewing beer), Sake has a very different flavour than Chinese rice wine. However, some cooks prefer it. It really comes down to personal preference – feel free to give it a try if you like.

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