Amazake (甘酒, あまざけ) is a traditional Japanese drink that is just as important to understand as sake and shochu. Literally meaning “sweet sake,” it is a sweet, low- or non-alcoholic fermented rice-based drink.
The history of Amazake dates all the way back to the Nihonshoki (日本書紀, にほんしょき) or the “Chronicles of Japan,” one of the earliest and most important sources of Japanese history and mythology. In it, there is mention that in the year 289 the people of Yoshino in Nara Prefecture prepared overnight a cold drink called Reishu (醴酒, れいしゅ, believed to be the origin of Amazake), and gave it to the Emperor as a rejuvenating summer beverage.
In the year 927 during the Heian Era, the Engishiki (an important administrative text documenting Japanese laws and customs of the time) again references Reishu, noting it as a sweet beverage made using rice, rice koji and sake.
Come the Edo Period (1603–1868), the drink evolved and became known as Amazake, and Amazake shops appeared in several Ukiyo-e (a genre of Japanese folklore art depicted on woodblock prints and paintings) as a nutritional and popular drink.
While it can be served hot or cold, these days it is most commonly consumed hot as a winter warmer over the cooler months. Amazake is typically offered to shrine visitors over the New Year’s holiday, especially on New Year’s Day when the chilly wait to make one’s first shrine visit of the year can be several hours.
This is usually Sake Kasu Amazake (酒粕甘酒, さけかす・あまざけ) made with Sake Kasu (a byproduct of sake making), water, and sugar. Sake Kasu Amazake is easy to make and has the aroma of sake as well as some alcohol content (although this can be cooked out if you cannot consume alcohol or wish to give it to children).
But here, we will be deep diving into the non-alcoholic type called Koji Amazake (麹甘酒 or 糀甘酒, こうじ・あまざけ), which is made using Koji rice (featuring kōji mold or Aspergillus oryzae, a key ingredient in the sake making process), rice and water.
Both types have different health benefits and while we can’t really say which is healthier than the other, in Japan, Koji Amazake is gaining more popularity of late due to its zero alcohol content and natural sweetness.
Why drink Amazake? The Health Benefits of Koji Amazake
Amazake is commonly referred to as a drink version of an IV drip. Here are some nutritional facts about Koji Amazake:
- It contains glucose that can convert to energy efficiently. Thanks to the koji spores that turn the rice starch into glucose, it will immediately absorb in the stomach and convert to energy. Some soccer players drink Koji Amazake as an energy charge when they are tired.
- It contains all 9 types of essential amino acids that the body needs, which has the effect of recovering from fatigue, lessening stress, and improving the immune system.
- It is rich in Vitamin Bs ーthe metabolism will not work smoothly without the help of Vitamin Bs. It promotes beauty and healthy skin.
- It supports healthy intestines with dietary fiber and oligosaccharides – the rice itself contains fiber but amazake is rich in oligosaccharides so it can create a better intestinal environment.
For more health benefits of Koji Amazake, please see Hakkaisan Sake Brewery’s collaborative research studies with various universities and institutes.
Types of Amazake
There are 3 different types of Koji Amazake in terms of how it’s made:
- Katazukuri Amazake (かた作り甘酒, かたづくり・あまざけ) or Kataneri Amazake (かた練り甘酒, かたねり・あまざけ) – Thick type, more like paste. The ratio depends on the producer, but a typical recipe uses 180g (cc) uncooked rice and 150g (cc) of Koji rice, plus just enough water to produce a thick drink. It contains less liquid, so it is sweeter than Usuzukuri (below), but can be diluted with water or milk to taste.
- Usuzukuri Amazake (うす作り甘酒,うすづくり・あまざけ) – Thin type, more liquidy. Generally speaking, you can use the same ratio of uncooked rice and Koji rice as Katazukuri Amazake (above) and then add 50% warm water (about 60 Celsius degrees or 140 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Hayazukuri Amazake (はや作り甘酒, はやづくり・あまざけ) – Use only Koji rice and add the same amount of 60 degree Celsius warm water (50:50 ratio). Since it only uses Koji rice, it brings out the Koji flavor best and is very delicious. I usually make Hayazukuri Amazake at home. I’ll share my method for making it at the end of this article.
Do note the importance of water temperature during preparation. The uncooked rice will be soaked and cooked first, and then allowed to cool before adding the Koji rice. Once the Koji rice and additional water is added, the temperature should not exceed 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit); do not allow it to boil. This is because a higher heat will kill the Koji spores/enzymes, which are required to convert the rice starch into sugar.
Amounts of solid ingredients may also vary depending on whether the rice has been pre-soaked or not, or whether the Koji rice is ‘nama‘ (raw) or dried. As enough Koji is imperative to creating this sweet beverage, some people raise the amount of Koji rice by 10-20% or even double the amount. Consult the particular recipe you are using for specific guidance.
Here, we will be focusing on the typical Koji Amazake – made with Koji rice (or Koji brown rice), rice (or brown rice or mochi glutenous rice) and water. But it’s important to note that there are many variables that affect the taste of the resulting product.
Koji rice is usually made with Yellow Koji (aspergillus oryzae). However, it may also be made from Black Koji (aspergillus luchuensis), White Koji (aspergillus kawachii) or Red Koji (Red Koji or Monascus is a different category of fungus, originally from China). Black Koji and White Koji create a different taste profile and will have more acidity than regular Yellow Koji.
Even within Yellow Koji there are various types. There are yellow koji varieties suitable for miso making, soy sauce making and sake making, so the taste can be different depending on the producer.
In addition, the type of rice used – whether it is polished rice, or unpolished rice like brown rice – can bring different consistencies as well. Brown rice Amazake tends to have more texture since it has more fiber. In fact, the grainy consistency of the not completely broken down rice is one of the notable characteristics of this unique fermented beverage.
Where to Buy Amazake
The fact that there are so many different producers and types is one of the very attractive parts of delving into the world of amazake – there is always something new to try! There are about 600 producers of amazake (sake breweries, miso producers, soy sauce producers, and others) that make over 1200 products.
My geeky business partner at Hakko Farm and well-known amazake researcher, Hiroshi Fujii has tried 500 products so far. He runs the website あまざけ.com (Japanese language only) where you can read his amazake reviews and find something you might be interested in.
If your plan is to buy amazake from a local supermarket, the two products below, Koji Amazake on the left (blue) and Sake Kasu Amazake on the right (red), are typically available.
Some large department stores and big supermarkets in Japan do carry Hakkaisan’s Amasake (Hakkaisan Sake Brewery calls it ‘Amasake’ (product name) instead of Amazake).
There are some Koji Amazake products made by local sake breweries that you won’t see at local supermarkets. Sake breweries usually use polished rice so compared with miso or soy sauce makers who produce Koji Amazake, it has a more clean and elegant taste, and is mostly the thinner Usuzukuri type. Miso and soy sauce makers often make the thick Katazukuri type.
There are also Amazake mixed juice versions such as Amazake mixed with juices or herbs (like lemon grass). When I went to Niigata, at Echigo Yuzawa station, I found a whole bunch of Amazake products and varieties at the station store. If you want to make your own Amazake mixed beverage, you can always try adding some to your favorite juice or smoothie. I sometimes make my green leaf veggie smoothies with it in the morning.
Special Amazake Products
Here are some impressive and unique Amazake products to add to your wishlist.
Senjo Sake Brewery in Nagano makes three different kinds of Amazake. The one on the left is made from germinated brown rice, the one in the middle is typical Yellow Koji Amazake, and the one on the right is made from White Koji. It’s interesting to taste them all and enjoy the differences between them.
The products below are from Buyu Sake Brewery in Ibaraki Prefecture. The one on the left is typical Amazake made using Yellow Koji but the one on the right uses Red Koji (Monascus). Not only is it a pretty pink color, it’s delicious as well.
A special Black Koji derived product is this one from Okinawa. Only Chuko Shuzo in Okinawa makes this impressive Black Koji Amazake. When you pour it into a glass, it looks a bit gray-ish in tone.
Another impressive Amazake is Koji no Ochichi made by Sado Hakko on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture. It is made using the Kimoto method of sake-making so it contains lactic acid. Usually Amazake can be made overnight, but it takes 3 weeks for the producer to make this special product. It has a great mix of acidity and sweetness like a rich yogurt.
An interesting related product is Koji water. You just dip Koji rice into water and enjoy drinking it as a beauty tonic. It is not Amazake but a very simple way to enjoy the benefits of Koji rice.
How to make Hayazukuri Amazake
Lastly, I want to share a very simple but delicious recipe for making Hayazukuri Amazake, using just Koji rice and water.
First, warm your Thermo bottle (250ml (cc) capacity bottle) with boiling water, cover it with a lid and leave it upside down for about 10 minutes.
Discard the hot water, then add 60g (cc) of Koji rice and 180ml (cc) of 65 to 68 degree Celsius (149-154 degrees Fahrenheit) water into the water bottle. Close the lid tightly and wait for 5-6 hours. I sometimes make it in the morning before work, carry it in my bag and drink it around 2 to 3 pm for my beauty dessert. It is super easy and delicious!
You can use any kind of Koji Rice but Iseso’s Miyako Koji (みやこ・こうじ) is easy to find at nearby supermarkets.
Have you tried Amazake? What’s your favorite type/way to drink it?
Pin me for later
Kyoko Nagano is a serial entrepreneur and Michelin star restaurant enthusiast based in Kanagawa. As a Certified sake sommelier, fermented food sommelier, and tofu, inarizushi and soy oil meister, she is an expert on Japanese food and drink.
Kyoko has spent 17 years abroad in 4 countries, and is now on a mission in Japan to support small craft sake breweries and traditional cultural businesses to help them survive.