"I like sake. Especially when it’s served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, like this is.”
--James Bond in You Only Live Twice (1967)
My first experience with Sake was at a Chinese restaurant where I ordered a tokkuri of hot Sake. The drinks menu didn't even list the brand of Sake. When it arrived at my table, the server poured some of the hot Sake into my ochoko. As I lifted the tiny cup to my nose, fumes from the Sake assaulted my eyes, almost like paint thinner. It was much too hot and wasn't pleasant in the least. Unfortunately, my experience is far too common and many people who have had a similar one believe they dislike all Sake.
Fortunately for me, I gave chilled Sake a chance and fell in love with it. Most premium Sake is best when serve slightly chilled, however there are exceptions. Over this weekend, I dined at Kamakura, a Japanese restaurant owned by Chef Youji Iwakura, and enjoyed a superb kaiseki dinner. Kamakura has an excellent Sake menu, including five Sakes which are served warm, available in 5 or 10 ounce chirori, metal vessels. We chose to start off the evening with one of those warm Sakes, the Shinkame 2 Year Aged Junmai.
Shinkame, which translates as "holy turtle," is a Sake brewery that specifically produces premium Sake intended to be served warm. It has only been available in Massachusetts within the last few years. The Sake was served warm, and not burning hot like you find at far too many Asian restaurants. And it was absolutely delicious, with plenty of complexity and umami. In addition, at different temperatures, such as when it cooled down a little, the flavor profile of the Sake changed and it was fascinating to monitor its progress. It also paired well with our initial food dishes. It is an experience more people should try.
Burning hot Sake may be on the endangered list as new restaurants are popping up in the Boston+ area that are serving properly warmed Sake. Besides Kamakura, two other fine examples are Pabu and Momi Nonmi which both have excellent Sake programs that include warm Sake.
I want everyone to start drinking more warm Sake!
Let's first take a peek into the history of warm Sake. The first historical written references to warmed Sake were between 905 and 927 AD., so it may have originated sometime in the 9th century. By the early 17th century, it became common to drink warmed Sake between the 9th day of the 9th month, called the Chrysanthemum Festival, and the 3rd day of the 3rd month of the following year, called the Plum Festival. Essentially, they were generally drinking warmed Sake during the winter months. Around the start of the 18th century or so, numerous people started drinking warmed Sake year round. Only a few decades before that happened, the written character for kan, the general term for "warm Sake," was created.
There are different theories for why the Japanese started to drink warm Sake though the most plausible seems to be for health reasons. In China, people had been drinking warmed alcohol in the winter for many centuries and eventually this practice likely made its way to Japan. In some Eastern health traditions, eating and drinking warmed items is thought to be much better than cold things, which were thought to chill the the body. So staying warm in the winter and overall health seem to have been the driving factors. A Japanese philosopher and scientist, Kaibara Ekiken, also wrote a book stating that drinking warmed Sake improves the circulation of your chi, life force.
Heating cheap Sake also made it taste better, covering its flaws. With the advent in Japan of premium Sake, such as more complex Ginjo and Daiginjo Sakes, chilled Sake started to take hold, as heating was often thought to take away some of the more delicate flavors in these more highly polished Sakes. As such, many people now provide general advice to drink premium Sake slightly chilled, and for most cases it probably is excellent advice. However, there is definitely premium Sake that can be drank warm, but it is more difficult to explain to someone about these exceptions, to tell them which Sakes should be drank warm, and how they should be warmed, Sometimes the back label of a Sake bottle will recommend serving temperatures, but that is not always the case.
Sake shows different flavor profiles, dependent on its temperature. In general, the higher the temperature, the sweeter the Sake will seem. Sake also contains different types of acids, from malic acid to succinic acid, and each acid has a specific temperature that will make it more dominant. For example, succinic acid tends to dominate more at higher temperatures, while malic acid is more prominent at lower temperatures. As such, there is no one perfect temperature to taste a Sake. The flavor profile will vary, dependent on the temperature, so the optimum temperature will come down to your personal preference.
Check out any of the three restaurants I mentioned and try some warm Sake. Experience its complexity and intriguing flavors. See how the Sake changes as the temperature varies. See how well warm Sake can pair with various foods. Put yourself in the hands of the Sake sommeliers and let them guide you on your warm Sake journey.