The first time I tried sake, it was served piping hot, as was the custom in North American sushi restaurants at the turn of the 21st century. My friends and I clinked our tiny sake cups as we nibbled on pieces of tuna and salmon nigiri. Secretly, however, we wished that we’d stuck with beer.
Several years passed before I decided to give warm sake a second chance. For a lot of people, the words “hot sake” conjure unpleasant memories of hangover-inducing, cheap brews heated to scalding temperatures in order to mask their flaws.
The idea that all good sake should be served chilled caught on as premium brews grew in popularity around the world. But recently, consumers both in Japan and abroad are warming up to hot sake.
“Two or three years ago, you still didn’t see much kanzake (heated sake) at tastings or in restaurants, but it’s definitely been getting more popular,” says sake specialist Shizuka Wakashita. “Warming the sake helps bring out some of its good points.”
As the temperatures outside continue to drop, those good points become all the more apparent. On a chilly winter night, there’s nothing more comforting than a cup of warm, soothing sake.
Although warming delicate daiginjo and ginjo sake typically does little to improve the flavor and aroma, many of the fuller, earthier brews take heat remarkably well. Umami-rich styles such as kimoto and yamahai are great candidates.
Two examples are Daishichi Kimoto Classic (Fukushima Prefecture) and Mii no Kotobuki Yamahai Kokuryoumiyako (Fukuoka Prefecture). Both are perfectly enjoyable chilled or at room temperature, but warming them slightly gives these brews a deliciously smooth and supple texture.
A little bit of heat can soften the acidic edges of junmaishu sakes and accentuate their ricey sweetness. A fat, honey-tinged brew, Kamoizumi Shusen (Hiroshima Prefecture) becomes even more expansive at 40 degrees Celsius, while the demure Odayaka Tokubetsu Junmaishu (Fukushima Prefecture) displays a more serene character.
The key is to avoid heating the sake too much. The topic of sake serving temperature comes with its own complex lexicon, but you only need to remember two terms: nurukan (40-45 degrees C) and atsukan (50-55 degrees C). I find that heating sake to 50 degrees obscures much of the flavor and aroma, so I usually opt for nurukan.
The recommended way to warm sake is to first pour it into a tokkuri flask or a tanpo, a metal warming vessel, and then place it in a pot of hot water. Use a meat thermometer to determine when it’s time to remove the flask.
Alternatively, you can cover the tokkuri with plastic wrap and simply stick it in the microwave for about a minute. But some purists believe that heating sake in hot water results in a fuller flavor, and I tend to agree.
Yuri Yaegashi, whose family brewery produces Ryusen Yaezakura in Iwate Prefecture, sums it up succinctly: “It takes time and effort to really enjoy kanzake,” she says. “What’s the rush?”
Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com.