THE TRUTH ABOUT ‘WARMED’ SAKE
The “hot versus cold” dichotomy may be one of sake’s biggest distractions. Many people are unsure which is the right choice, for which sake, and why that is. Add to that the questions of how one can tell, how to go about warming, and the inevitable complexities that come along with personal preferences, and it can all be daunting.
Which is why many people promoting sake have oversimplified things by polarizing the answer into “good sake should be chilled, bad sake can be heated.” Not only are things not that simple, that statement is not even close to being entirely correct.
It is true that historically if not traditionally more sake was served warm than cold. Historical records and vessels show that sake was enjoyed warm as far back as the tenth century. It is very likely that the practice made it to Japan via neighboring China, where eating and drinking warmed things has always been considered to be healthier than cold things, which were thought to chill the center of the body.
However, as premium sake like ginjo developed into more aromatic, delicate stuff (in perhaps the late 80s), the concept of enjoying premium sake slightly chilled gain momentum. Why? Because heating sake like that would bludgeon out of existence what the brewers worked so hard to exude. As such the practice of enjoying premium sake slightly chilled gained momentum in Japan, and to me, it seemed that the premium warm sake began to be forgotten for a spell in the 90s. Or at least it was awaiting rediscovery.
This trend played into what was happening overseas as well. As those that imported sake strove to capture the hearts and palates of the wine-loving world, often they would meet a brick wall. “I’ve had sake. No thanks. Not interested.”
“Ah,” would come the reply. “But have you had premium sake, like ginjo? It is served cold, not hot, and I guarantee you it is different from what you have had before, hot!” And this ploy would get folks to taste sake, and often, to appreciate it. So it has served a purpose.
But this all lead to an all-too-familiar and oversimplified perception that good sake should be enjoyed cold, and less-good sake should be drunk hot. While enjoying premium sake slightly chilled can still be a useful rule of thumb for those just getting into sake, the fact that there is almost no bad sake in existence anymore renders the second half of the statement moot.
Perhaps the most egregious of untruths (misconceptions?) out there is that bad sake is heated to cover the flaws, whereas good sake does not need that. There has never been a brewer that tasted his product, looked around and said, “This stuff is bad. Let’s heat it and fool everyone.” Nah. I don’t think so. So, no, sake is not now – nor has it ever been – heated to deliberately cover the flaws. Surely heating will accomplish that to some degree! But it was never the objective of warming.
So, why then is hot sake everywhere, at every Japanese restaurant around? Why does it seem to be the go-to sake? Part of the reason is that only a very small amount of the market is the kind of sake that would suffer from warming. The majority of all sake made is still simple, straightforward, “table sake.” Remember, just because something isn’t fruity doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Ginjo schminjo, say some.
So in one sense, warming is a bit more of a traditional way to enjoy sake, and tradition dies hard. And, like any industry, the large players benefit from selling lots of inexpensive product, and much of that is enjoyed hot simply because it always has been. Also, ginjo has only been around as a significant presence in the market since the early 80s. So much more sake before that period was indeed suited to warming. All of these factors combined have helped hot sake to maintain its presence.
So, in general, most ginjo is most easily enjoyed slightly chilled. But there are exceptions. And this is how I usually convey the joys of sake when I have but a few minutes. And while that serves most purposes most of the time, the truth is deliciously more complex, interesting and appealing.
Warming a sake that has a flavor profile suited to it can lead to a life-altering experience. And much of this epiphany-enticing sake is premium ginjo. So yes, there are ginjo that can be warmed with delicious results.
What makes a ginjo – or any other sake – suited to warming? Nothing more than the flavor profile. Very often sake with an earthiness to it – perhaps higher bitterness, acidity or even sweetness, but more importantly the combination of these – let a sake meld into something extraordinary when warmed. But it need not be complex: dry, thick and/or umami laden sake can morph into something wonderfully different at warm temperatures too.
How can one tell? While very often, in Japan, the producer will indicate recommended serving temperatures on the label, rarely does this information appear on exported product, probably because the importer – rather than the producer – wants to keep things simple for the customer. In terms of styles, yamahai and kimoto types as well as sake with some maturity are naturals as candidates for warming.
But in truth, the best way to know is to figure it out. Try a sake – any sake that you enjoy – at room temperature rather than chilled. Then take the ones that appealed to you at room temperature and try them a bit warmer. There are no rules, except for the ones that are constantly being broken anyway.
The advantage to doing things this way is that you will also discover one of the best secrets of sake: any one given sake will be enjoyable as a different animal at each temperature range. Sure, each one will have a temperature at which it tastes best to you on that day and in that situation. But its appeal across a range of temperatures will fascinate you. Even just “hot” and “cold” are tremendously limiting. Long ago, there were a dozen words in Japanese used to refer to the wide range of temperatures at which sake might be served. These days, though, very few are used with any regularity.
Warm or hot sake is known generically as kanzake or o-kan. Atsukan means piping-hot sake, whereas nurukan refers to more tepid sake, an absolutely wonderful if vague temperature range for enjoying premium sake.
Then there is the how of warming sake. Is there one best way? Certainly not. (we are dealing with sake, after all. There is never consensus, much less a single best way, about anything!) But one principle with remembering is that sake should be heated by immersing a vessel of choice into just-boiled or simmering water and stirred occasionally for a few minutes until it reaches the desired temperature, verified empirically (read: taste the stuff as you warm it). It is best not to do it in water that is actively boiling as that can cause some of the alcohol to evaporate, skewing the original make-up of the sake. A microwave oven will work in a pinch, but it is hard to be accurate, and also this method seems to rob the sake of a bit of character (although there is no scientific grounds for this!).
There seems to be a modern renaissance in Japan over warmed sake, and the tools, toys and accoutrements available these days are both fun and practical. Many are cheap, simple tools that fit a sake-containing vessel into another that holds hot water, kind of like a miniature, portable double boiler, warming sake predictably and consistently. These are well worth the search!
~ ~ ~
I, too, was once a chilled ginjo snob. When I first got into premium sake, there was a stretch of several years during which I drank nothing but ginjo, and never any way save chilled. In time, though, as I spent more time with brewers, I was often chided for my lack of imagination.
“Listen, kid,” I recall being told. “You wanna know what a good sake is? A good sake is one that can be enjoyed both chilled and warm. Now that’s a good sake!” I figured I was not one to argue with someone who had been in this industry several generations long than myself, so I took the words to heart. Man, am I glad I did.
However, the chances are good that I will again recommend that most ginjo should be enjoyed slightly chilled. “But,” I will emphasize, “there are some thoroughly enjoyable, delicious exceptions.” Remember that disclaimer.