Mirin is a type of rice wine popular in Japanese cuisine. It is produced in a similar manner to sake, but using glutinous rice (rather than polished sake rice) in the mash. The difference of grain in the mash mixture (moromi) results in less of the natural sugars converting to alcohol. This produces a lower alcohol content and a higher sugar content, creating a sweet-tasting rice wine, with a slight acidity.
Much like Japan’s other famous rice wine, sake, the history of mirin can be difficult to pin down. Most historians accept that the liquid was first introduced during the provincial wars of 1467 to 1615, though they differ over how this came about. Some believe that mirin was accidentally created by blending distilled alcohol with sweet sake to prevent spoilage. Others think that mirin is a corruption of the Chinese drink – milin – which has a sweet taste, like trickling honey, and was brought to Japan by traders. Whatever the truth, mirin became popular across Japan throughout the Edo period, being a sweet variant of sake, often taken as a drink by women. Since mirin was more readily available than sugar, it soon became used as an ingredient in cooking. The introduction of a steep alcohol tax in the country led to mirin manufacturers adding salt to their product, making it unsuitable for drinking as an alcoholic beverage, while still retaining sufficient sweetness for use in Japanese cuisine.
Like sake, with which it shares much in common, high-quality mirin requires high-quality ingredients, which undergo a fermentation and saccharification process before being ready for sale and consumption.
The key ingredients for sake are rice, water, kōji-kin, and distilled alcohol (shochu). Mirin uses glutinous rice, rather than that saka mai used in the production of sake. While this rice is polished to remove the outer husk and rice bran, it does not undergo the intense polishing that sake rice does. This leaves much of the outer layers – the ones containing high concentrations of fat, vitamins, and proteins – largely intact. This means that a smaller proportion of the eventual mirin mash is made up of starch, resulting in a lower concentration of alcohol. Mirin production uses water for washing and steaming the rice base and creating the mash, as well as diluting the final product before bottling. Since the wine also uses distilled alcohol in its mix, the purity and mineral content of the water is of less importance than in the making of sake. Kōji-kin is an enzyme-secreting fungus much used in Japanese cuisine for fermentation purposes. The spores of this fungus are scattered across steamed glutinous rice, creating kōji. The spores are left to germinate within the kōji, their enzymes releasing to convert rice starch into glucose prior to saccharification. Mirin requires the addition of a distilled liquor – shochu – to the rice and kōji mix. Shochu is normally distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, or brown sugar – all of which have high starch or glucose contents. Because the use of glutinous rice reduces the proportion of starch in the mash, incorporating the shochu makes up for that deficiency and speeds up the saccharification process.
The mixture of steamed glutinous rice, kōji, and shochu is placed into large tanks, where it is left to ferment and mature for between one and two months. During this time, the kōji breaks down the starch in the mirin mash, converting it to glucose, giving mirin its distinctive sweet flavour. Once the saccharification stage is complete, the contents of the tanks are pressed, releasing the liquid mirin, which is then heated and filtered to improve its purity and flavour.
Mirin is a long-lasting food item, whether used as an ingredient or a beverage. However, the quality of the mirin starts to deteriorate after two months or so of being opened, due to the natural evaporation of the alcohol, if held at room temperature. For best results, store mirin in its original bottle, in the refrigerator, with the cap tightly sealed.
Mirin has a unique taste, all its own, being sweet, tangy, and umami all at the same time. Depending on the type of shochu used during the fermentation and saccharification stage, subtle flavour notes can be incorporated into the mirin itself. With a sugar content of between 40 and 50%, the main taste is one of sweetness that tends to overpower the taste of alcohol, making it a popular sipping liquor.
While mirin can be drunk as a beverage, it is more commonly used as a liquid seasoning. It is used to create sweet soup bases, a variety of simmered dishes, where the flavour is slowly absorbed into the dish, and several sauces, such as kabayaki and teriyaki. When brushed lightly across grilled fish, mirin not only imparts a delightful sweetness that complements the flavour of the fish, its alcohol content can help eliminate any lingering fishy aromas. Mirin can be heated prior to use, evaporating some of the alcohol, and imparting a more savoury aroma to the ingredient.
With an alcohol content of just 0.9% vol, this mirin has high sugar levels, resulting in a sweet taste. While comparable in flavour to the purer hon mirin, this shin mirin is cheaper to produce, making it a cost-effective alternative.
Another hone mirin much-admired by our Michelin-starred customers, Mikawa mirin has been aged for three years, in which time it develops its unique, super-rich flavours. It was even used in some of the dishes served at the G7 Summit in 2016.
Here at SushiSushi, we source our mirin from some of the most well-respected and established producers in Japan. These include: