The Season of Warm Sake
Autumn has just appeared on my doorsteps like a temperamental distant relative, who dropped by for an evening but stayed for weeks. One day is bright with crispy cool air, vivid red and yellow colours and a nice breeze. And then you have a week of weeping cold drizzle, which penetrates every cell of your body. You have icy wind, which spends hours looking for every gap to get into your house. And of course, the dull grey sky, which blurs the difference between day and night. And mind, the latter type of days gradually prevail over the former.
But the good thing about autumn is that it’s the start of the season of warmed up sake, kanzake (燗酒). What could be better than to have an ochoko or two of hot sake on a cold autumn afternoon or after coming home on a freezing winter evening? It’s great on its own warming up first your throat and then bringing a relaxing warmth throughout your whole body. And it’s fantastic with hearty and rich seasonal food like a stew or a roast.
Kanzake is one of these little things that make sake unique. Most of the drinks are normally served at a certain temperature. Chilled white wine, cold beer, room temperature cognac to give a few examples. And usually, the temperature range for any particular wine for example is very limited. Sake is a completely different story. And Japanese people discovered it more than a thousand years ago.
First of all, there’s no such a thing as a normal temperature for sake. If we look at all sake types and styles, the serving temperature will range from 5°C to 60°C or even 70°C if you feel adventurous. Secondly, the same sake might have a recommended range provided by the brewer. And this range could be quite wide. And thirdly, and it is where the fun begins, you can experiment with the temperature regardless of any recommendations.
There is traditional terminology for sake served at certain temperatures. I have learnt them during my Kikisake-shi course. Though it must be said that those terms are not widely used even in Japan. So if you drop by an izakaya and would like to show off your knowledge of sake, be prepared that the waiting staff might be a bit baffled. Still, I am going to put them here just for general knowledge. And in specialised sake bars, particularly in Tokyo, a bartender might understand you and feel a lot of respect for your expertise in Japanese national drink.
|Type||Temperature||English Name||Japanese Name|
|Yukibie (Snow cold)||雪冷え|
|Hanabie (Fridge cold)||花冷え|
|20°C – 30°C|
68°F – 86°F
Warm and hot
|Hinatakan (In the Sun)||日向燗|
|Hitohadakan (Body Temperature)||人肌燗|
|Tobikirikan (Piping Hot)||飛びきり燗|
Why heat up sake and what happens
The main reason for heating up sake is to explore the same sake at various temperatures. It’s fun and it expands your drinking experience. Of course, during cold months it’s just nice to have something warm but not too strong. So what happens to sake when we heat it up? The transformation actually takes place at three levels: aroma, flavour and texture.
If you smell chilled sake you will notice that the aroma is fresh and a bit acidic. If it’s futsushu, junmai or honjozo sake, you might notice faint rice notes, probably some earthy aromas. In ginjo-style sake the aroma will be much more intense and punchy dominated by flowery and fruity scents. These aromas are created by highly volatile components created during the fermentation which just fly at low temperatures into your nose.
When the temperature goes up from chilled to warmed, the aroma of sake opens up. The other elements, which were dormant at low temperatures become more volatile and fly up. But those elements are richer and often more complex. The texture of warm sake softens up and any rough edges go away. This warm pleasant softness just feels your mouth. Yum!
The flavour or taste of sake also transforms with the temperature. You start feeling more umami and sweetness in warm sake, the acidity softens, any bitterness subsides. The alcohol also becomes less prominent and everything blends nicely together.
How to warm up your precious sake
So how you warm sake up. The best and easy way is to bain-marie sake in a tokkuri (a ceramic flask). Boil some water in a pot, take off the heat, pour some sake into the tokkuri and put it in the pot. Either use your senses or a thermometer to control the temperature. Keep in mind that while you take the sake and pour it in a glass or ochoko, it will lose around 5°-10°C.
The coolest way to warm up your sake is to get a special sake warmer. Some of them are mechanical, a fancy version of bain-marie sort of. Others are electrical and could be quite sophisticated. One of my loyal readers sent me a picture of a sleek but not very expensive electric sake warmer you can get from Amazon.
The good thing about an electric sake warmer is that you can put it on the and it will keep your sake at a constant temperature. Mind that if you are buying from Japan, you will need a special power converter to use it with the UK electric grid.
A pewter cup works wonders also. It’s very heat conductive and can be used if you have a way to keep your bain-marie at a constant temperature either with a chafing dish (like on the picture above used by Oliver from Tengu Sake) or Sous Vide.
The easiest but less elegant way to warm up sake is a microwave oven. I use it sometimes and it works perfectly. Just warm it up by 10-sec intervals and not at full power. I cannot vouch that you won’t lose anything to microwaves, but I didn’t notice anything missing from my sake warmed in the microwave.
How to drink warmed up sake
I am going to give you a few tips about how to enjoy warm sake. Firstly, there are two directions you can go. I personally keep any sake in a fridge before drinking. Then I start drinking from chilled, pouring a small portion of sake into tokkuri and keeping the rest of the sake in the fridge. The sake first warms up to room temperature in the tokkuri and then my next step is to warm it up on bain-marie or in the microwave if I feel lazy.
The opposite direction, suggested by Andrew Russell on Sugidama Podcast is to warm up a bottle of sake and then start drinking from hot to room temperature. This method, in my opinion, will work well with sake, which you don’t normally drink chilled like junmai.
The main idea of both methods is to find the perfect temperature for your sake. As long as you did it, you can make a mental note and drink this sake next time at that temperature. However, the beauty of sake is that sometimes you might feel differently, and enjoy the same sake at a few degrees up or down.
The best vessel for warm sake is ochoko, a ceramic sake cup, or guinomi. The latter is usually bigger and of a funkier shape. You can of course drink from a wine glass but it feels a bit strange to me. Also, glass doesn’t keep the heat well. If you heated up sake to the maximum, then it’s pretty cool to drink it from sakazuki, a flat sake cup you might have seen in samurai movies.
If you don’t have a Japanese sake cup, you can use a Japanese teacup, they are practically interchangeable with guinomi. Or any other ceramic vessel of your choice. The first rule about drinking sake is that there’s no rule.
What sake to choose to drink warm
If you have never drunk sake warm choose a junmai sake. You can’t be wrong with it. Junmai sake is usually more savoury and umami-laden and opens up nicely when heated up. You can easily heat it up to 45°C or even more. Depending on the flavour profile.
The richer is sake, the higher temperature you can use. Honjozo also works very well warm as well as good futsushu. Another good candidate for warming up is aged sake. Its richness and quality could be enhanced by higher temperatures.
The story is slightly different with ginjo-style sake such as junmai ginjo/daiginjo or ginjo/daiginjo. These sake are generally less suitable for drinking warm Their prized fruity and flowery aromas might go away if you heat them up. But, and it’s a big BUT. You still can enjoy ginjo-style sake warm. It’ll be just a different experience. And this different experience might be as pleasant as drinking them chilled. Just give it a try!
What food goes well with warm sake
Warmed sake is great with hearty food like stews, roasts, grilled meat or vegetables or mushrooms. It also works quite well with rich and/or spicy food like curry or fajitas. Southern fried chicken is great with warm sake as well as mushroom risotto or paella. Be adventurous here too! Take your favourite dish and have it with warm sake and see how it goes. Try a few different temperatures.
So I encourage you to experiment a bit with heating up the sake you drink. Even if it’s junmai daiginjo, give it a go. Heat up a small amount of it and try! Taste it with an open mind and you won’t be disappointed. I am going to follow this post with another post featuring 5 sake, which I believe are great to drink warm. Subscribe to the newsletter to stay tuned and receive the post straight into your inbox. Let me know how your sake warming experiments are going!
While you are waiting for my recommendations, you can read more about warmed sake on websites of sake retailers. Here are a few very good and informative sources: