As we head deeper into winter, I find myself craving hot sake on a frequent basis.

The temperature inside my drafty Tokyo apartment, which feels like it lacks any kind of insulation, is often bone-chillingly low. When merely stepping into your kitchen feels akin to taking a trip to the Arctic, the soothing warmth of hot sake is a great boon — comfort and coziness in liquid form.

Kanzake (warmed sake) has long been a part of Japanese drinking culture. As Brian Ashcraft points out in his newest book, “The Japanese Sake Bible,” references to heated sake have appeared in Japanese texts for centuries, and the practice of heating sake became prevalent around the middle of the Edo Period (1603-1868).

Outside of Japan, premium sake is more commonly served chilled than heated, largely due to the misconception that sake is served hot in order to mask poor quality. In fact, there are many brews made specifically to be drunk warmed. Sometimes (but not always), the label on the back of the bottle will list suggested serving temperatures.

A little heat can coax beguiling hidden aromas and flavors from certain styles of sake. Although heating rarely brings out the best in delicate floral and fruity varieties, sturdier brews with higher levels of acidity and amino acids — such as kimoto (生酛) and yamahai (山廃) styles — lend themselves to warming. Generally, temperatures between 40 and 45 degrees Celsius (a state referred to as nurukan in Japanese) round out the drink’s umami and sweetness while bringing acidity into balance; however, overheating can overemphasize the alcohol, resulting in a sharp, astringent flavor. Meanwhile, dry styles such as honjōzō (本醸造) can be exceedingly pleasant if served piping hot, at around 50 degrees (also known as atsukan).

Warming brew: At restaurants still offering outdoor dining, sake served hot in teacup-sized vessels or mixed into warm cocktails has been especially popular. | MELINDA JOE
Warming brew: At restaurants still offering outdoor dining, sake served hot in teacup-sized vessels or mixed into warm cocktails has been especially popular. | MELINDA JOE

In Tokyo, several bars specialize in warmed brews — Nurukan Sato in Roppongi, Kanagari in Shinjuku and Kaikan in Kichijoji, to name a few. In recent years, kanzake has become fashionable among sake enthusiasts, and many restaurants and izakaya pubs are equipped with kantsuke sake warmers, compact box-like heating machines filled with hot water.

Though still very much in the fledgling stage, the trend may be starting to gain traction in major U.S. sake markets, such as New York.

“Right now, when we’re constantly being told to keep socializing outdoors, where it’s harder to spread the coronavirus, kanzake is more appealing than ever,” says Monica Samuels, director of sake and spirits at importer Vine Connections.

At restaurants still offering outdoor dining this season despite inclement temperatures, sake served hot in teacup-sized vessels or mixed into warm cocktails has been especially popular.

“I personally enjoy hot taruzake (sake aged in cedar casks) topped up with dashi broth, or fresh ginger and honey steeped in a warmed aged brew,” Samuels says. “It’s so much more complex and well balanced than mulled wine or a hot toddy.”

Here in Tokyo, I’ve also been drinking a lot of kanzake, mostly at home (usually while wrapped in a blanket and sitting on an electric carpet). During the new year holiday, I particularly enjoyed a bottle of Hiraizumi Yamahai Junmai from Akita Prefecture, a juicy mouthful of bright citrus with creamy, lactic nuance. It’s a great entry point for the kanzake-curious.

I first tried it heated to 45 degrees Celsius in a hot water bath and found that the temperature brought out an interesting mineral quality, but I like it best closer to 40 degrees. Warm but not hot, the sake retains its mouthwatering acidity, with sweet notes of candied pineapple and citrus fruits coming to the fore, followed by luxurious umami richness and a whisper of toasted rice.

It’s a sake with range, a nice match for everything from Tyrolean speck (cured and lightly smoked ham) and chevre; nabe hotpot of simmered cod and Napa cabbage; even fried oysters with a squeeze of lemon. With the Kanto region under a second state of emergency, there’s no better time to hunker down and cozy up to your favorite warmed brew.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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