Hot versus Cold
Issue # 4, November 15, 1999
In this issue:
Sake: Hot vs. Cold
Sakes you should look for.
Where to buy sake when in Japan.
Good sake pubs.
Sake-related events (Japan)
Reader Dave Heithaus (email@example.com) recently asked:
” am new to the enjoyment of sake, having had a couple of bottles at home,and having enjoyed it prior to some Japanese meals. Question: how does one know the proper serving temperature? Until recently I guess I thought all
sake was to be served warm. Is this preference, or are some brands/varieties properly served at only one temperature? I guess it makes sense: the same applies to wine and beer…
“hat question, along with the impending commencement of winter, provide the seed for this month’ topic.
Sake: Hot vs. Cold
The question often arises: How do you know which sake to drink hot and which sake to drink cold? With most Asian restaurants serving sake piping hot out of sake-warming machines, and others insisting sake be drunk chilled, it may be confusing to many.
The quick answer is this: in general, good sake is served cold. Sake that is served warm is served that way for two reasons: one, that is the older, traditional way to serve sake (for sometimes less-than-positive reasons to be expounded upon later) and two, heating masks inferiority.
But wait! It is not all that simple! The above is simply a generalization, the executive summary. There is so much more that needs to be said. Most importantly, that there is plenty of good sake, premium sake even, that goes quite well when gently warmed. Plenty indeed. It is too easy, in this era of chilled premium ginjo sake, to overlook how fine warm sake can be, especially in the winter.
Which brings us back to the first question: How do you know whether to warm a sake or to serve it chilled? How can you tell ?from the label or otherwise – if a sake will be good when warmed, or better chilled? Fortunately or unfortunately, it is purely an empirical exercise ?a matter of personal preference.
Many sakagura (sake breweries) will tell you that a particular sake of theirs is especially tasty when warmed. Some list that information right on the label. Also, tasting a wide variety of sake at a wide variety of temperatures will soon make it clear which flavor profiles appeal to you at warm temperatures and which do not. Recommendations of friends, restaurateurs, or shopkeepers can also can be useful in knowing which temperatures to serve a sake. But in the end, you have to just taste a lot and figure it out for yourself.
First, a little history and background as to why the whole issue has come about. Long ago, almost all sake was served warm, or even hot. Sake back then was much rougher, and heating it smoothed out the rough edges, making it more palatable. Even sake that was considered decent back then would suffer little from being warmed.
Things that were done “ong ago”often become tradition, simply because they were being done long ago. Whether or not tradition still serves the situation becomes irrelevant. And so, serving sake warmed became tradition. Even today, in Japan as elsewhere, most sake is consumed warm or hot, especially in traditional little pubs and restaurants.
But there is more than just tradition to the why of it. Heating, as mentioned before, masks off-flavors and smells. The curiosity of drinking a hot alcoholic beverage replaces the Epicurean approach. It can be fun to slam down piping hot sake poured from tokkuri (flagons) into those cutesy little cups (o-choko). How the sake at hand tastes or smells becomes a secondary issue, and all too often counting how many you’e had becomes tertiary at best. No doubt, this has its appeal.
However, about 30 to 40 years ago, things began to change in the sake-brewing world. Brewing technology and the availability of new strains of sake rice (and the equipment to properly handle it) and new pure yeast strains led to sake with bold and lively taste and fragrance profiles. Much more delicate and fragile sake also came about, with fruit and flowery essences all of a sudden becoming part of the equation. Sake like this would be effectively neutered of the very qualities it was brewed to exude, if heated.
And this continues today as more and more premium sake is brewed each year. It is often said that ” good sake is one that can be enjoyed warm as well as cold.”Generally, this seems to come from older men in the sake industry, and may be a symptom of nostalgic affection. This may not be the entire story. Much sake brewed today, like that just described, is fruity and fragrant and complex when cool or cold, but when warmed up is reduced to lifeless, dull drivel. It would not be fair to say that this is not great sake simply because it is not good when warmed.
The reason different sake tastes better at different temperatures is not a function of the flavor alone. The ability of the human tongue to sense various flavor components varies with temperature too. Apparently it is most sensitive to taste sensations at 21C (68F). Sake served at this temperature would allow you to sense more of its flavor components than at any other temperature, but this doesn’ mean it is the best temperature for enjoying all sake.
The sweetness (amami) of a sake is most detectable by the tongue when the sake is around the temperature of the skin. The perception of sweetness drops off, however, to about one-fourth when the sake is chilled to near freezing temperatures. Acidity (sanmi) is somewhat placated in a chilled sake, but becomes more apparent as the sake warms. But once at room temperature, the sensation of acidity does not change much. Also, the warmer a sake is, the harder the bitter elements (nigami) can be to detect. Hence, warming a sake can take the rough edge off, but sometimes a gentle nigami adds a wonderfully balancing touch to a sake.
All this is great for the laboratory, but is best forgotten when in front of a sake cup. Just keep in mind that things are going to change when the temperature of a sake changes, and that different flavor profiles come into their own at different temperatures.
In spite of the above statement that you just have to figure out which sake is good warm and which is good chilled, there are some generalizations that can be helpful, in terms of which types or grades of sake lend themselves well to warming.
In particular, much honjozo (see www.sake-world.com for an explanation) is lighter and less acidic, and mellow and goes down smoothly warm. Also, koshu (aged sake) is very often wonderful when warmed, with its heavily earthy and stronger flavors. Yamahai-shikomi sake, made with a special yeast-starter method that leaves to gamier flavors and higher sweetness and acidity levels, is also often a fine candidate for warming.
Hot sake is known as o-kan, or kan-zake. Nuru-kan refers to sake heated to about 40C to 45C (100F to 115F) or so, and decent serving temperature range. Piping hot sake is called atsu-kan. Extremes, by the way, should be avoided. Hot sake and cold sake should be relabeled as warm sake and cool sake.
Cool sake in particular provides a myriad of tasting experiences. Much good sake (especially that which does not go well warmed due to complex flavor and fragrances) begins to take on an appeal just below room temperature. Other premium sake is better well chilled. Sake will exhibit different characteristics at different temperature ranges, and rather than having one best temperature, it will provide several profiles as you sip it slowly and it warms up.
In light of all the attention given in this newsletter to warming sake, I feel obligated to restate that most good sake is indeed served cool to cold. The fragrances and layered construction of flavors are at their peak at such temperatures, making the sake taste refreshing and alive. This basic guideline needs to be kept in mind. But warming sake, although it may be an exception to the rule, should not be forgotten. And if you are going to do it, here is how.
There seems to be a theory that how you heat a sake affects how it tastes. More precisely, putting sake in the microwave is frowned upon by many tipplers and connoisseurs. Sake warmed in hot water and sake warmed in a microwave taste completely different, or so goes the theory.
Well, I took it upon myself to find out the truth. I am more of a traditionalist in most things, but this just didn’ make sense. Energy is energy, and it shouldn’ make a hoot of difference.
I began with one of my absolute favorites for warmed sake: Kamoizumi from Hiroshima. Rich, earthy and straw colored, I felt I could easily note any differences that arose.
Next, the vessels. Got to be Bizen. I selected two Bizen tokkuri and two Bizen chokko, almost identical. I warmed the tokkuri themselves in warm water beforehand, as they were quite cold off the shelf. I also allowed the sake to come up to room temperature before beginning to avoid the unpredictability of drastic temperatures changes.
I then got a thermometer. Even slight differences in temperature affect flavor, so let’ control the process as much as we can. I used the O-kan meter, a thermometer specifically designed for tokkuri insertion, which I recommend for those with disposable time and income. It has these wings on the top that keep it from sinking all the way into a tokkuri. You can find it at Seibu Loft for 1000 yen. A must-buy for sake otaku (geeks).
One tokkuri of sake was heated in a microwave oven, and checked every 20 seconds or so. The other was simultaneously heated in a pan of water over a gas flame. When the temperature of each reached 48C, my arbitrarily chosen target for the exercise, I had my assistant fill the two chokko, not telling me which was which. And I sipped.
And sipped. And slurped, swished and thought. And sniffed. And what did I find?
There was, to my honest and great surprise, a difference. The flame-heated sake was ever so slightly livelier. Almost imperceptible, it was, but there was indeed a difference. The microwaved sake was a bit quieter. It seemed to me that the flame-heated version brought out more of the original nature of the sake.
It wasn’ just me. In an equally blind test, my assistant came up with the exact same results. The flame-heated sake was a bit livelier.
However, we really had to search for that difference. We had to try as hard as we could to find it. Considering how much effort went into the flame heating and how little went in to the microwave version, I would go out on a limb and say it isn’ worth it. The purists might boil me (or microwave me) alive for saying so, but unless you are going to focus on nothing but the sake, the labor/performance curve is in favor of the microwave.
So, before this winter is over, get your hands on some sake suitable for warming, and check it out. And warm it in whatever way pleases you.
Please see the “ecommended sake”section below, which in this issue focuses on sake that is good when warmed.
Also, those interested in further research into warming sake should check out the homepage of the Kanzake Fukyuu Kyoukai, (Kanzake Popularization Association) at
which provides an in-depth listing of pubs where you can drink kan-zake, as well as a listing of sake good for warming. There is also plenty of other peripherally related information, like warming vessels and a glossary of kan-zake related terms. Both you and your browser will need to be able to read Japanese (but even if you can’, some of the photos are really cool).
Sake to look for…
This month’ recommendations are all sake that go well warm, but also go well cool.
Denshu, Junmai-shu, Aomori Prefecture
Every year, this sake tops the “op 100 warmed sake”lists in Japan. Good, solid construction with a nice rice-laden flavor. A true “mami,”that hard-to-describe deliciousness, comes out when slightly warmed. Not yet available in the US. Rating: 89
Shinkame “ikomago”Junmai Ginjo-shu, Saitama
A sub-brand of the Shinkame label, this is an example of a ginjo-shu suited to warming. It may be my personal favorite for kanzake. It is not, however, your typical ginjo-shu, as it has been laid to age for two to three years, and has a much more solid and earthy foundation than most sake. This translates into more tart and bitter elements, and it is these that make it so wonderul when warmed. Not available in US. Rating (warmed): 93
Bizen Sake no Hitoshuji, Junmai Ginjo-shu, Okayama
A most interesting brewery that is works closely with the culture and crafts of Okayama, brewing with locally grown Omachi rice and fermenting some sake in locally thrown Bizen pottery tanks. Rich, lusty and earthy flavors of great complexity but great sturdiness. Not only this junmai ginjo, but many of their sake is suitable for warming. They go out of their way to recommend warming in huge characters on some of their products’labels. Available to some degree in the US. Rating: 89
Ginban, Banshu 50 Junmai Ginjo-shu, Toyama
A rich, creamy and slightly sweet ginjo that the makers themselves do NOT recommend for warming. It seems to have immensely satisfying properties and an overall calming effect due perhaps to the richness that comes out when warm. (It’ either that or the alcohol.) Most of the slightly rice-like sweet aroma is still perceptible when warm, provided it is not heated excessively. Not available in the US, it seems. Rating: 87
Koshi no Kanbai, Junmai Ginjo-shu, Niigata
This is a classic case of what should be considered anathema, heating a pristine, clean, Niigata sake, especially this most famous of famous sake. But trying it warm came as a recommendation from Haruo Matsuzaki, a renown sake critic, and couldn’ be ignored. Indeed, it works, although not everyone would agree. A slight sweetness comes out of an otherwise dry, almost sterile sake, giving it a personality and an appeal. Availability in the US is unclear. Rating: 91
Where to buy good sake…
Announcing the opening of esake.com
As of December 1,1999, you can order outstanding sake over the internet, pay by credit card, and have it shipped to your door anywhere in Japan. There are presently 33 sake from 11 breweries to choose from, all from small “outique “sake breweries that create character-laden, memorable sake. No two are alike.
Go to www.esake.com and steep in the world of sake. Check out the history of each of our member breweries; meet the people that brew their sake and learn of the regions from which they come. This is the first internet sake sales site run by sake brewers, and not simply a retailer. Check out the sake database, with detailed descriptions and photos on how sake is made, what terminology is used to label it, and what is important about the ingredients: rice, water and koji. Get your sake questions answered. Learn about sake and food matching. Find out about the different types and grades of sake. Soak in all you can.
Then, go to our Sake Store and buy some to try at home. You can order one, two or three bottles recommended by us each month. You can join our sake or the month club and have one, two or three sake sent to you automatically. And, if your happen to be passing through Japan on business, we can ship a selection right to your hotel, specially packaged for you to take home with you on the airplane. Then there are specially packaged gift sets. And, naturally, you can simply browse the list ?separated according to price or type or brewer ?read the reviews and order as you please.
If you live in Japan, this is by far the easiest, simplest, fastest and most enjoyable way to learn about sake ?firsthand.
Note: at present, esake can only ship within Japan. We hope to expand our operations to the United States soon. So stay in touch, and visit our website often.
(For the record, John Gauntner is financially involved in esake.com as a business venture. No attempts to hide that are being made!)
Sake-related Events and Tidbits
On Saturday, December 4, from 1:00pm there will be a sake tasting and seminar held at 1066 Restaurant, 3-9-5 Kami Meguro, Meguro-ku. The cost is 3000 yen for the tasting and accompanying food. The event is organized by RAIN, -Refugee Assistance International Network – a charity which works with displaced children in Sri Lanka. All proceeds will go the charity. The event is sponsored by Maihime Brewery, brewers of sterling Maihime sake from Nagano, and will feature several types of Maihime sake for comparison,
including one selection served warm, to accommodate winter tastes. There will be explanations in both Japanese and English. If you are interested, please contact Steve Cooke at firstname.lastname@example.org, call 3719-9059, fax 3719-9002.
Noted Japanese sake critic Haruo Matsuzaki, author of several excellent guidebooks on sake, holds regular seminars in the Tokyo area. The lecture-plus-tasting series is called “ihonshu Shimin Kouza,”and there is usually one event per month at either Shin-Romantei in Yotsuya Yanagicho, or Murakara-machikara-kan in Shibuya. The seminars are all in Japanese, and are quite educational and practical, with five to ten sake available for tasting, plus a meal afterwards (optional), all for 6000 yen. Those interested should call 03-3266-0877.
New Sake Book!!!
Be sure to check out the latest sake book on the market, Sake Pure & Simple, written by myself and Grif Frost, the CEO of SakeOne Corporation. The book is published by Stonebridge Press of Berkeley, and is available through Amazon, as well as at bookstores like Kinokuniya and Maruzen in Japan. Cover price is $8.95, with Amazon providing a discount. Click through to Amazon from www.sake-world.com, please…
Sake Pure & Simple is colorful, with a design that is eye-catching and stimulating. It is in general a light-hearted but extremely informative read, with all you need or would want to know about sake, plus more. All in all, it is a wonderful introduction to the world of sake.
Included is an excellent directory of where to buy and drink sake in cities all over North America. This makes it a great guide for those living in the US who are craving their favorite beverage.
Reader Feedback and Q&A
Several readers have inquired about the nutritional value of sake. How many calories, how many carbohydrates? With the popularity of low-carb, high-protein diets these days, more people seem concerned with this information.
Here is a nutritional breakdown of sake.
1) Protein and fat are minimal, and can be ignored.
2) 95% of the calories come from alcohol
3) Those calories are all carbohydrates
One source I have here says there are 27 grams of carbs in a 180ml glass of sake (known as 1 go of sake, roughly equivalent to a 5.5 oz serving). At 9 calories per carb that is about 243 calories.
Another source says that sake at 15.5% alcohol has 100 calories per 100cc. That would be 180 calories per 5.5 ounce serving. . At 9 calories per gram of carbohydrate that is 20 grams.
As you can see, there is some discrepancy between sources. But the range in general is 180 ?40 calories, or 20 ? grams of carbohydrates.
In the next issue (scheduled for December 15, 1999):
-A brief history of sake and sake brewing
-Reader Feedback and Q&A
-Where to drink sake
-Where to buy sake
-More sake reviews
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