Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sake: Chilled vs Warmed

In the U.S., heated Saké has been the norm in many places. Many have never had chilled Saké. Yet that is changing so the question then arises: Should you heat or chill your Saké?

Contrary to what many think, most good Saké tastes best slightly chilled. Though this is not an absolute rule, being chilled is best for most Saké. This allows the best flavors of the Saké to exude from the liquid. It should be noted that there is some good Saké that can be served warmed, but not too hot. Too much heat will ruin basically any Saké. And sadly, when you get warmed Saké at many inexpensive restaurants, they serve it far too hot. In that same regard, Saké should not be served too cold as that will also mask its aromas and flavors.

So why has hot Saké been so common in the U.S.?

Traditionally, Saké was served hot because the general quality was not that good. The heat helped smooth out the Saké and tone down its bitterness. As Saké brewing techniques and technology improved, the better Sakés began to be served chilled. There was far less need to smooth out the Saké with heat. But in the U.S., the misconception arose that heated Saké was the only way to go. Plus, for a time, good chilled Saké was not readily available in the U.S. So, the poor quality of the Saké actually did need heating to smooth it out. But now that good Saké is more readily available, the need for heating rarely exists any longer.

Based on my last poll, there is a significant portion of people who have never had chilled Saké. For many of then, heated Saké is all they have ever had. But there are significant differences between the two. Warmed or hot Saké usually seems stronger and sometimes more pungent. It usually does not taste subtle or complex. Chilled Saké though is usually smoother, like a fine white wine or even premium vodka. It can have many subtle or strong flavors, far more complexity. It can be an incredible drink.

How do you keep Saké chilled while drinking it?

At some restaurants, they might give you the chilled bottle and that is it. It will slowly get warm over the course of the night which is annoying. You should ask for a bucket of ice to hold the bottle, as you would most white wines. Better restaurants will provide you a container with ice to keep the bottle chilled. For example, a couple restaurants I know provide a wooden trough filled with ice where the bottle lies atop it. I really like that method. Other places have special carafes with an interior "bubble" where ice can be placed to keep the carafe cool. The ice does not come into contact in the Saké. That is good because ice would just water it down. At home, keep your Saké chilled as you would any white wine.


Anonymous said...

I've taken to really enjoyed chilled sake myself lately. And I do agree, it was because in the past I was buying such crappo bottles that they could only be served warm. But a chilled glass of better quality sake is a heck of a lot better than some warmed poor quality glug.

Richard Auffrey said...

Always glad to hear from another Sake fan. Have you checked out Sakaya yet, the new all-Sake store in NYC?

Dr. Debs said...

See, I've only had the warmed sake before and for whatever reason, a hot drink is not what I want with sushi. I want something chilled. Have to see if my favorite sushi joint has chilled options.

Richard Auffrey said...

Dr. Debs, you definitely should try some chilled Sake. Though it is considered a general rule that you do not drink Sake and sushi because you should not mix rice wine with the rice in sushi. (Something I will talk about more in a later post). Sake goes best with sashimi, the fish without any rice. Though I do ignore the general rule and drink Sake with my sushi. And I don't find any problems with it.

Gabriella Opaz said...

Fantastic topic! Having worked in sushi restaurants over the course of four years, I am intimately familiar with the major misconception held by Americans that sake should only be served warm. The debate has gotten so heated that I had a handful of customers demand that I serve a high end sake called, Wakatake, Daiginjo Onikoroshi Sake, hot. Asked to place it in a carafe and microwave it (oh, the sadness!!) in order for my dear customer to feel satisfied that he was drinking a good sake. "That's the way all good sakes should be drunk" he said to me with a self indulgent smile. A good sake should be served, as Richard poignantly states, chilled.

And for the record, who wants to have a hot drink with a cold, delicate piece of fish?!

Dr. Debs said...

See, I'm such a heathen that I lump sashimi and sushi together into one big category :). Will keep this in mind when going for sushi/sashimi in near future. Chilled sake, sashimi (and I'll sneak some sushi in there too, if no one's watching!)