What Is Mirin And What Does It Taste Like?

Even if the word "mirin" is unfamiliar to you, chances are you've tasted it — and liked it. Mirin is a Japanese rice wine that's a key ingredient in many of the sauces and Asian dishes you love. According to Bon Appétit, thick, champagne-hued mirin provides that rich, deep, and distinctive umami flavor that's present in teriyaki sauce and your favorite ramen.

The Spruce Eats tells the interesting origin story of mirin: it first became widely used in Japan not as a cooking ingredient, but as a luxury liquor sometime between the 15th and 17th centuries — The Sengoku Period — marked by near constant civil wars (via World History Encyclopedia). However, the concoction spoiled easily because of its large amounts of yeast and sugar, so mirin was further refined into a distilled wine with the goal of prolonging its shelf life. Because mirin was easier to come by than sugar at this time in Japanese history, it was used to sweeten a variety of foods. This product was similar to the mirin of today.

Mirin is still used to add sweetness as well as an appealing aroma to Japanese dishes, says The Spruce Eats. Additionally, mirin's sweetness still comes from the fermentation of rice starches into sugars. Two kinds of rice (steamed, glutinous mochigome and cultured kome-koji) are added to a distilled alcohol called shochu, and the mixture is fermented for two months. This gives mirin a 14 percent alcohol content.

Mirin has a distinct flavor

According to The Spruce Eats, the flavor of mirin is assertive and a layered combination of tangy, sweet, and umami. Unlike another rice wine, sake, it has an almost sauce-like consistency, and it is an excellent complement to salty sauces such as tamari or soy sauce in applications like broths and marinades. Bon Appétit adds that mirin's best asset is its unique umami richness which makes everything such as dipping sauces, glazes, and marinades more delicious.

The Spruce Eats adds that while mirin is best known as an ingredient in teriyaki sauce, it's also a chief ingredient in ponzu sauce and the tempura dipping sauce ten-tsuyu. Mirin is also a common flavoring for izakaya, small plates of delicious foods served at casual restaurants and bars (think Japanese tapas), and in entrees like braised pork belly. (Don't be afraid to try it in your next stir-fry.)

There's a chance your local supermarket won't carry mirin, but it's widely available at Asian specialty stores and online. Bon Appétit points out that similar "aji-mirin" products are easier to find in grocery stores. These usually contain added sweeteners, but are acceptable if you can't find the real thing. If none of these are available, you can use dry white wine or rice vinegar as a substitute. Just add a half a teaspoon of sugar for every tablespoon of these stand-ins.