Warm sake. It’s hard to think of anything more appealing on a cold winter evening. As we trudge through the depths of one of the coldest and snowiest winters Japan has seen in years, warming oneself from the core out with a glass or bottle of a well-chosen heated sake settles and soothes like nothing else.
Actually, warm sake has taken a bit of a rap lately. About 20 years ago, when ginjoshu began to come into its own, the long-held image of sake being served warm began to disintegrate. As most good ginjo is somewhat fragrant and delicate, warming it destroys precisely what it was brewed to exude, bludgeoning the subtleties into nonexistence.
So, hot sake soon became equated with cheap sake (not a totally unfounded correlation), and the notion that all good sake should be served chilled became almost an accepted fact. Eventually, though, things came full circle. There is plenty of premium sake that is absolutely wonderful warm. In fact, many brewers make sake with flavor profiles specifically suited to warming, and tell you so on the bottle.
The big question remains: How do you know which sake is suited to warming and which is better off chilled? There is no simple answer, but in general, refined and fragrant sake like much daiginjo is not especially enhanced by heating. More solidly constructed sake grades, like honjozo and some junmaishu, often make better candidates for gustatory thermal processing. Also, a lot of aged sake, with its heavier, earthy flavors, is exquisite warmed.
The more you taste sake, the easier it is to realize what works warm and what doesn’t. I’ll give you some of my favorites below but information sources abound. There are even books on it, and one company puts out a list of the top warm sake, based on polls taken at izakaya nationwide.
Also, as mentioned above, many brewers put “suitable for warming” right on the label, in one form or another. And of course, there is the infallible word of mouth. In the end, there are no hard and fast rules about what sake goes well warm: it comes down to a matter of personal preference.
There are several terms that are used in reference to warming sake. Heated sake in general is known as o-kan, or kanzake. Nurukan refers to gently warmed sake, whereas atsukan is piping-hot sake. Atsukan is for the most part too hot to taste anything, so nurukan is what we want to be drinking.
How warm is warm? Again, it’s all what you like, but about 50 C seems to be the average. Traditionally, warm sake is said to be best at a temperature corresponding to hito hada, or someone’s skin. In practice, however, this seems just a tad too low.
What is the best way to warm sake? Basically, use a simple tokkuri (a traditional sake flask; its narrow neck holds in the heat better) and put it in a pan of water over a gentle flame. Taste the sake from time to time until it suits you. You can, of course, use a microwave oven to heat it. But believe it or not, it actually tastes just a smidgen better when heated in water.
A great tool to have when warming sake at home is the o-kan meter, a specially designed thermometer. It can be inserted into a tokkuri, with the sensing bulb submerged in the sake, but its winglike projections keep it from sinking too low. It is available at stores like Seibu Loft and Tokyu Hands for about 1,000 yen. Few sake pubs use such a tool, but last week I was at one that took the trouble.
Another (albeit a tad pricey) sake-warming accouterment consists of a ceramic pot used to hold water into which you place a tokkuri or two for warming. Beneath this sits another pot of similar size that holds a candle. The heat from the candle keeps the water above — and your sake — at the perfect temperature for a good, long time. This allows you to sip at your own slow pace, free from concern about the sake cooling down. These are available at fine sake retailers and sometimes department stores, and generally cost 7,000 yen-10,000 yen. But hey, you only live once.
Here are a few brands that are fairly easy to find and are widely considered to be excellent choices for warming.
Kamoizumi Junmai Ginjo (Hiroshima) is easy to find, even in Seven-Elevens around the country, and has a solid richness that is wonderful when warmed. Urakasumi Honjozo is also easy to find, and its simple flavor profile when heated is liked by all. Bizen Sake no Hitosuji (Okayama), Kariho (Akita) and Denshu (Aomori) are perennial favorites for kanzake.
Warmed Gokyo (Yamaguchi) is wonderful, as is bone-dry Tosatzuru (Kochi) and rich Nishi no Seki (Oita). Naturally, there are countless more, but these are all fairly easy to find. A bit harder to find but worth the search is my own favorite, Shinkame Hikomago (Saitama).
Hakushika and Kenbishi, two of the largest brewers in Japan, are also simple but nice when warmed. (Try the Tokusen grade of these two brands, which corresponds to honjozo class.) But there is no reason to limit yourself to the above sake, of course. Experiment with whatever you can. Although o-kan can be enjoyed year-round, now is certainly the best season.
Dewazakura “Karesansui” (Yamagata)
(Nihonshu-do, acidity and seimai-buai not available)
Dewazakura is more likely known for its namazake products than sake like this. Karesansui is actually a honjozo that has been aged at low temperatures for three years. At cool temperatures, it has a soft, honey-laden nose with flowers and a slight earthiness in the recesses. It exhibits the well-rounded touch of an aged sake.
When warm, a ricelike touch comes alive in both the nose and the flavor. Karesansui has a fairly centered flavor when warm, neither too gamy nor too dry.
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