Mirin is used extensively in Japanese cuisine, and is most often referred to as ‘sweetened sake’ although as Professor Richard Hosking, the author of A Dictionary of Japanese Food, most accurately points out, it isn’t – it is the liquid formed from a mash of glutinous rice mixed with komekoji malted rice and shochu liqor.
What is Mirin?
It is primarily used as a sweetening agent and is often preferred over sugar, and its inclusion adds depth to dashi stock and sauces. It contains around 13% to 14% alcohol. In Kansai, chefs usually burn some of the alcohol off prior to use. If all the alcohol is allowed to disappear it is called called nikiri-mirin, 'completely boiled mirin'. In Tokyo it is used straight from the bottle.
Mirin is often used in combination with shoyu soy sauce and sake to create a flavor base to which dashi stock may be added. This is a basic building block of Japanese cuisine, and gives that 'typically Japanese' taste profile to so many dishes. With it, you can make pretty much any aemono or nibitashi. In the supermarket, look for hon-mirin, which is guaranteed an alcohol content of 13%. Without that prefix hon- (it means 'true') you are getting a low alcohol synthetic imitation. Avoid that at all costs.
A Japanese chef once let me in on a trade secret. If you feel your soup, or stew or sauce is 'lacking something', just add the tiniest drop of mirin. Make sure not to add too much, because once it's in you can't take it out, and you are left with a sickly sweet mess. Done that. However, if you add just a little, it seems to bring up the natural flavors of the main ingredients. Why not give it a try?
Mirin was once served as an alternative to sake, and is still served in certain ritual celebrations that way, as otosu, especially at New Year. Really high quality, hand-crafted examples that you can genuinely use as an aperitif are very difficult to find. The Kankyo Shuzo brewery in Kanie, Aichi Prefecture has been making fine mirin since 1862. Their Mukashijikomi (pictured above) is a rich, smooth, golden luxurious mirin that can be drunk as is. It tastes not unlike a tawny port, Japanese style.