Creamy with a natural mild sweetness, Amazake or sweet sake is a popular Japanese hot drink during the New Year’s. Made with rice koji, it is also a healthy drink to improve your immune system.
When I was younger, I always associated amazake (甘酒) or sweet sake with the taste of alcoholic sake. It was that distinct aroma of sake in the drink that gave me the impression that it would be too strong, so I would always pass on the drink when someone offered it. But please don’t make the same assumption as I did. The amazake you may be offered in Japan could be non-alcoholic amazake made with rice koji, instead of sake lees. The drink is so delicious! It’s been my favorite winter comfort drink for many years (I wish I would have tried it earlier!).
Amazake (pronounced ah-mah-ZAH-kay) is literally “sweet” (甘) “sake” (酒). It is a creamy, thick, fermented rice drink with a rich, sweet flavor, served either chilled or warm/hot.
The history of amazake goes back to the Kofun period (250 to 538 AD), mentioned in The Nihon Shoki (日本書紀) or The Chronicles of Japan – the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history.
If you have traveled to Japan before, you might have had a chance to try complimentary amazake at your ryokan, or even some souvenir shops. It is a popular drink served during New Year’s in Japan as well. Many temples and shrines provide it free of charge to worshippers on New Year’s Day, and sell it for visitors to bring home. Amazake is also served during Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) held on March 3rd every year, as a non-alcoholic option to shirozake (白酒) – a sweet white sake with less alcohol, which is traditionally served on this day.
If you are familiar with Korean sweet rice drink (sikhye) that’s served complementary at the end of a meal at Korean restaurant, you may think amazake is the same drink. But it’s not. Amazake is made with rice, water, and sake lees (酒粕) or rice koji (米麹), while sikhye is made of malted barley flour, rice, sugar and water.
Did You Know There Are Two Types of Amazake?
Although the name contains “sake”, only one type of Amazake contains alcohol.
1. Amazake made with sake lees:
Amazake made with lees left from sake production (sakekasu 酒粕) is low-alcoholic drink (8% alcohol). Sake lees are dissolved in hot water and sugar is added in to sweeten the lees.
If you are pregnant or have children, always ask if the amazake contains sake lees to avoid alcohol consumption.
2. Amazake made with rice koji:
Amazake made with rice, water, and rice koji is a non-alcoholic drink, hence it can be enjoyed by everyone including small children and pregnant ladies.
Rice koji (kome koji 米麹) is rice that is covered with kōji mold (Aspergillus oryzae). As you may already know, kōji mold is used in making many Japanese fermented foods such as miso, soy sauce, mirin, and sake. It helps create some of the most important Japanese ingredients, and may be one of the contributing reasons to Japanese longevity!
You can buy rice koji (including one above from Cold Mountain) at Japanese grocery stores (refrigerated section near miso), or Amazon.
To make amazake, ferment the rice with rice koji at 125-140 ºF (50-60 ºC) for 8 to 10 hours. This particular temperature range is the most suitable temperature for the enzyme to break down the starch into glucose/sugar.
Amazake made with rice koji has more nutritional value than the one made with sake lees. That’s our next topic.
Benefits of Drinking Amazake
Last year, Kayoko (JOC teammate) told me that these days Amazake is called the “IV drip to drink”「飲む点滴」in Japan. How funny, I did not know that. Amazake is packed with nutrients, including vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, folic acid, ferulic acid, dietary fiber, glutamine, and a large amount of glucose – which are almost the same components as an IV drip, hence the catchy nickname for amazake.
Benefits of drinking amazake:
- improved skin (prevent spots and freckles, skin lightening, moisturizing)
- increased metabolism
- fatigue recovery
- improved digestion
- strengthened immune system
Even though amazake is good for you, it is important to enjoy the sweet drink in moderation, especially if you’re diabetic. Just one cup (200-250 ml) of amazake in a day is enough to provide you these health benefits.
Making a Perfect Cup of Amazake
The single most important factor in making a good amazake is temperature control. Use whatever device you like – a rice cooker, yogurt maker, thermos pot/jar – as long as you can maintain the temperature of the rice and rice koji mixture between 125 and 140 ºF (50-60 ºC) for 8 to 10 hours.
I personally think the Japanese rice cooker method is the easiest, and since it’s the kitchen device that most of you own (especially if you cook Japanese food often), and that’s the method I’m sharing with you here. For the Instant Pot owners, I did check the yogurt mode, but the yogurt function “normal” temperature is too low and “more” is too high, so I wouldn’t recommend it for amazake. UPDATE (March 2019): Now I own an Instant Pot Ultra, and there is a “custom” temperature setting in the yogurt function! You can set the temperature to 125-140 ºF (50-60 ºC) at all times! I’ve made my Amazake in my Instant Pot Ultra following my own recipe and it came out perfectly!
Even though the rice cooker method is the easiest, it still takes care to create a wonderful amazake. I recommend checking the temperature of rice and rice koji mixture often so the temperature remains between 125 and 140 ºF (50-60 ºC) at ALL TIMES. If the temperature is too high, the enzyme of koji does not work sufficiently and won’t become sweet. Conversely, if the temperature is too low, the fermentation of lactic acid progresses too much and the bacteria propagate, causing the drink to become too sour.
To maintain the temperature, the rice cooker must be set to the “Keep Warm” mode, and instead of covering the rice cooker bowl with its lid, you will need to cover the bowl with a kitchen towel. Depending on the temperature, you can control and maintain it by using a different material of kitchen towel. If it’s too hot, use a thinner towel or a Japanese/Asian bamboo sieve to cover but allow the heat to escape. If it’s too cold, you will need to use a thicker towel to trap in the heat.
Amazake is the perfect winter drink. It’s healthy, comforting, sweet & creamy! Just what you need to keep warm and cozy until spring.
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In a rice cooker bowl, add the rinsed short grain rice. Add water until the 1 cup porridge water line. If there is no porridge water line, add water to the regular white rice 4 cup line. Cook the porridge according to your rice cooker’s instructions (or Press “Porridge”).
Once the porridge is cooked, the temperature is around 175 ºF. Take out the rice cooker bowl from the rice cooker.
Gradually add water, 1/8 cup at a time, stir thoroughly and measure the temperature of the porridge. The temperature has to cool down to 140 ºF (60 ºC) as koji mold cannot live above that temperature.
Once the porridge has reached 140 ºF (60 ºC), add the crumbled rice koji. Stir thoroughly to incorporate. Make sure there is enough water to cover the rice and rice koji so they are sufficiently soaked. If not, add warm water so it maintains 140 ºF (60 ºC).
Put the rice cooker bowl back into the rice cooker. Turn the rice cooker on to “keep warm” (or "extended keep warm") setting and cover with a cloth towel. Leave the rice cooker lid fully open so it does not get too hot. Allow the rice to cook for 8-10 hours, stirring occasionally and checking the temperature of the mixture every hour for the first 2-3 hours. Make sure it stays between 125 and 140 ºF (50-60 ºC) at ALL TIMES.
- Toward the end of 8 hours, the mixture starts to release sweet fragrance. Once it’s done cooking, the mixture should smell sweet. Turn off the rice cooker and transfer the rice cooker bowl into ice water to let cool and stop cooking.
- When it’s cooled, transfer the amazake into a large sterilized container. You can keep in the refrigerator up to one week, or freezer for up to a month.
Take out the portion you need, dilute the mixture with (hot/iced) water to the consistency you like (I like mine without diluting) and serve hot (reheat) or chilled. You can serve with grated ginger. My kids love smoothies made with amazake, banana, and soymilk. If you heat amazake above 140 ºF (60 ºC), enzyme will die, so if you like to heat up, enjoy lukewarm in order to obtain the enzyme.
Recipe by Namiko Chen of Just One Cookbook. All images and content on this site are copyright protected. Please do not use my images without my permission. If you’d like to share this recipe on your site, please re-write the recipe and link to this post as the original source. Thank you.