Mirin is an alcoholic condiment used as a seasoning in Japanese cuisine and also as an alcoholic beverage.
It is a sweet yellow liquid consisting of approximately 40-50% sugar with an alcohol content of approximately 14%. It is used in stews as well as sauces that accompany soba noodles, somen noodles, kabayaki and teriyaki. The alcohol content suppresses the odor of ingredients such as fish, helps the flavors of ingredients to permeate the dish and prevents ingredients from falling apart during cooking. The sugar content sweetens the dish, gives teriyaki its shine and creates a fragrant aroma when heated. Mirin is also used as an ingredient of sweet white sake and toso. Ancient mirin was brown in color but improvements in manufacturing methods mean that modern mirin has a pale brown color, which has caused to be called 'shiromirin' (lit. white mirin).
As for other alcoholic beverages such as beer and whisky, liquor tax is levied on mirin under the Liquor Tax Act and a liquor license is necessary in order to manufacture and sell it. Until 1996, a license to sell alcoholic beverages was necessary and it was not possible to sell mirin on premises other than those selling alcoholic beverages.
Malted rice that has been steamed and mixed with glutinous rice before the addition of shochu or brewing alcohol and left to mature at room temperature for 60 days is pressed and filtered. During maturation, amylase enzymes from the yeast break down the glutinous rice starch into sugar to give sweetness. Succinic acid and amino acids (created by the action of yeast protease enzymes) create the characteristic thickness. When mature, the mixture consists of approximately 14% alcohol, so alcohol fermentation by yeast (and the propagation of microorganisms) is suppressed. As a result of this, the consumption of sugar by microorganisms is reduced and the product is sweeter than sake.
This method of production in which alcohol is added during early maturation is the same as the process used to make the Xiangxue wine variety of four types of Shaoxing wine. However, it is different in that malted wheat is used to make Xiangxue wine. Therefore the variety of yeast used is also different (Shaoxing wine is also similar to mirin in its use in cooking).
Mirin was originally an alcoholic beverage and was drunk as a sweet luxury drink before sake became common during the Edo period. Today it is still infused with herbs and drunk as medicinal sake (toso, Yomeishu etc.).
There are various theories regarding the origin of mirin, but none have been determined as fact.
One theory claims that a sweet alcoholic drink called 'milin' that once existed in China was exported to Japan during the Sengoku Period (Period of Warring States).
Today an alcoholic drink containing a sugar content of in excess of 20% is made in Zhejiang Province, and the yeast mash used to make Shaoxing wine is known as 'linfanjiu.'
Lin' means 'to drip.'
The oldest written reference to mirin is thought to be that in "Komai Nikki" (Diary of Shigekatsu KOMAI) (1593). Honcho Shokkan' (1695) details the process of manufacturing hon mirin using shochu.
From the mid and late Edo period, mirin gradually became used as a seasoning in soba noodle sauce and kabayaki sauce.
As time passed, the extracted component of mirin was gradually increased to create modern hon mirin which became adopted as a general household ingredient after the Second World War.
In 1996, sales licensing requirements were relaxed, making it possible for supermarkets and grocery stores that did not sell alcoholic beverages such as beer and whiskey to sell mirin (hon mirin) by applying for a 'mirin retail license.'
Mirin-like seasonings are also sold, which contain the liquor tax exempt alcohol content of less than 1% to which flavor enhancers that mimic the taste of mirin and sweeteners such as starch syrup are added. There are also fermented seasonings that are exempt from liquor tax which contain 10-14% alcohol and 1.5g/100ml salt.
In order to differentiate between these products, original mirin is sometimes called 'hon mirin.'
In an effort to make consumers aware of 'hon mirin,' the mirin industry has designated November 30 as 'Ii Mirin' (lit. Good Mirin') after the resemblance of the number 11 to the word Japanese word for 'good' written in hiragana and the 'mirin' homonym of the digits of the number 30.