Good sake should be chilled – always?

Good sake should be chilled. Is this always true?

It seems like there are two mantras I here all the time about sake. The first is the average first encounter with sake; a hot fusel drink from a Japanese restaurant. The second is that good sake should be chilled slightly for drinking. While these two lead us to conclude that all good sake is best served chilled this is not strictly the case.

While most daiginjo and ginjo will lose their aromatics if heated to any extent other sakes will nicely take the heat and pass on the warm comfort with each sip. I, like many, had my first encounter with sake as a hot drink at a sushi bar. I was not impressed. Later, quite a bit later, when I was looking in to brewing sake, I experienced my first high quality sake a little chilled in a wine glass. Wow, what a difference. As I looked into sake more, I found more and more references stating, basically, the good stuff should be served chilled. And for the most part this is how I proceeded, never giving it much more thought. However, two people have set me straight.

The first is Ichibay, a sake lover who is almost obsessed with kanzake (燗酒) or warmed sake. On his blog he often reviews sake, kanzake and occasionally methods and tools for warming sake. The second is John Gauntner who, included kanzake in one of the tastings for the Sake Professional Course I attended in November 2010. This was the first time I tried a sake warmed (not hot). In this case, the sake was good both chilled and warm but was better warmed.

Most methods for warming sake involve placing a container of the sake into a hot water bath. This gently warms the sake but is quick enough not to drive off all the more volatile components before it is ready to be drunk. While I often see recommendations not to use the microwave, John did an experiment to see how large the difference is between the water bath method and a microwave. He did fine a noticeable difference but one that was small enough that consideration of convenience may, at least some times, override the difference. I have not done this experiment for myself but I suspect that I may not be able to tell the difference.

The following table gives the names used for various serving temperatures. At one time there were people, whose main duty was to heat sake to the proper temperature. Now that this is pretty much lost to the past, only three of these server temperature names are commonly used; they are Atsu-kan, Nuru-kan and Jo-on.

55°C / 131°F Tobikiri-kan (飛び切り燗) Fly away for good
50°C / 122°F Atsu-kan (熱燗) Hot hot
45°C / 113°F Jo-kan (上燗) Upper hot
40°C / 104°F Nuru-kan (ぬる燗) Warm hot
35°C / 95°F Hitohada-kan (人肌燗) A person’s skin hot
30°C / 86°F Hinata-kan (日向燗) Out in the sun hot
20°C / 68°F Jo-on (常温) Normal room temperature
15°C / 59°F Suzu-bie (涼冷え) Cool chilled
10°C / 50°F Hana-bie (花冷え) Flower chilled
5°C / 41°F Yuki-bie (雪冷え) Snow chilled

If you have not tried sake warmed to a nice comforting temperature, consider doing so. Some sake have an indication on the label as to how they are best served so you can find one that the brewer has produced to be served warm and give it a try. It won’t burn you 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Good sake should be chilled – always?”

  1. Wow, thanks for the all the good info and references on sake temperatures. I liked reading your experience and opinion of warmed and cold sake. I have never tried sake warmed, or hot. My only experiences with sake been Fu-Ki and my homebrewed sake on the rocks. Can this sake be served warm or even hot? Also, can homebrewed sake be warmed or hot? I’ve been curious of warmed sake for some time now, thanks for posting!

    1. Yes, homebrew sake is just like commercial sake. Some are good cold, others warm or hot. The only way to know if you like it warm is to try it :-).

      Go for it…

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