Rice wine is a somewhat deceptive name, since instead of using fruit, which is the usually ingredient for wines, a grain (rice) is fermented to produce the wine. Some say rice wine processes are really rice beer processes, yet the end result generally is similar in taste to wines made from grapes rather than most beers. Yet the taste is not really like fermented grape wine or beer, and the alcohol content, which can vary from about 18-25%, is stronger than wine produced from grapes.
People may immediately associate rice wine with Japanese sake, which is a very popular drink and has gained in popularity in the US due to the enjoyment of sushi. Another familiar thing to western palates is rice vinegar, which is usually made from rice wine. It would be a mistake to assume that sake is the only rice wine. Instead, the alcoholic drink comes in a vast variety of forms and is made in a number of Asian countries.
Due to the various versions of rice wine, you can’t expect these wines to remain the same from country to country. For example, in China, Korea and Vietnam, some versions of this alcohol are produced which have a milky consistency instead of being a clear liquid. Other countries produce clear forms, and may be clear to pale yellow in color. One variant is Ang Jiu, made in China, which is red in color.
Rice wines may be taken as part of a meal, or might be served as dessert. Some cultures serve certain types heated. This is often true in the US when sake is served. However, in Japan, heated sake is less common. In fact, lovers of sake take it quite as seriously as other people take the tasting of grape wines, and there are high and low end sakes, and sake tastings.
Rice wine is usually noted for a mild taste that may be partly sweet, though not all variants are. The process of making these wines is difficult to explain, since there can be great variation. Some wines, like the Korean Gamju, are made at home, when rice, water, and yeast cake are cooked together to result in a mildly fermented drink. This can be served an hour or two after it is prepared. Other wines go through a more traditional process of fermentation of grains, bottling and perhaps some storage prior to being sold by retailers.