Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association | JSS
The preferred temperature for enjoying sake has changed over time. Before refrigeration, all sake was either warmed or served at room temperature. Today, most sake in popular restaurants and bars are chilled. One of the unique characteristics of sake is how the flavor changes with temperature. Nearly all sake can be heated or chilled, it’s a matter of personal preference.
With cold weather approaching, exploring the world of heated sake can help expand one’s personal enjoyment of sake!
Heating sake changes how the tongue perceives certain flavors. Sweetness and umami become more pronounced at nearly body temperature. However, the perception of acidity is unaffected. Therefore, heating more acidic sake balances the palate. On the other hand, too high a temperature will increase the pungent sensation of alcohol.
Heat affects the aroma of sake, particularly for more delicate floral and fruity aromas. Instead, as sake temperature rises, the aroma grows sharper and carries notes of cereal. The effects of heat on aroma often discourage many from warming ginjo and daiginjo varieties, known for their delicate aromas.
The texture of sake also changes with heat. Lower serving temperature gives sake a more viscous, dense texture. However, heat lightens the texture, providing a different mouthfeel. While almost all sake can be heated, some varieties cannot. Similar to champagne, heating sparkling sake would release carbon dioxide, leaving the sake flat.
Sake can be enjoyed at a wide range of temperatures. Each temperature has a different name, and you can enjoy unique aspects of the same sake when you try it at different ranges of temperatures. Here is a brief outline of the various temperatures sake can be enjoyed at.
Vapor rises from the tokkuri. The tokkuri and choko are hot to the touch. The sake’s aromas are sharpened and it tastes dry, with a clean finish.
Some heat can be felt when holding the tokkuri or choko. Vapor rises when the sake is poured. The sake’s aromas are concentrated, and the flavor feels soft and crisp.
The sake feels more warm than hot when drinking. It seems close to body temperature. The sake’s aromas become a bit richer, and the flavor feels full.
When the tokkuri is held, it may feel slightly cool to the touch. The aroma and flavor will give an impression of softness.
Lightly chilled with a subtle aroma. Commonly represents sake that has been taken out of refrigeration and set out at room temperature.
The general term for sake chilled between 10°C and 5°C is reishu. Generally, chilling to lower temperatures masks subtle flavors.
When chilled the aroma of the sake is subtle and has a dense texture.
Each sake has an ideal heating temperature range. Many breweries list the ideal serving temperature on the label or on an official taste profile associated with the sake. However, the best way to find the ideal temperature for any sake is to try different serving temperatures firsthand. Here are some examples of popular temperatures for different sake types.
Due to their delicate flavor and floral aroma, many prefer drinking ginjo and daiginjo varieties chilled or at ambient temperature between 8°C and 12°C. However, these sake can be gently warmed to enhance their flavors.
The ideal heating temperature for ginjo and daiginjo sake is around 40°C, roughly 100°F (Nuru-kan). The heating vessel will feel slightly warm to the touch and the sake maintains the more subtle aromas associated with ginjo and daiginjo. However, these sake can also be heated more to experience a stronger, ripened fruit aroma.
Less-known than other sake varieties, kimoto and yamahai sake are ideal for heating. These sake derive their name from methods in the brewing process rather than rice polishing rate. To simplify, brewers make kimoto and yamahai sake by letting the shubo create its own lactic acid bacilli. This process takes longer, but results in a more complex, strong bodied sake.
The body and complexity of kimoto and yamahai stand up well to higher heat, even when made with more polished rice. These sake are often heated between 45°C and 50°C, or 113°F and 122°F (Jo-kan). The heating vessel will be hot to the touch, producing steam during the pour. The aroma becomes more intense while the sake flavor widens on the tongue.
If the sake contains 17~18% ABV, adding 10% of water is recommended when heating it up.
Junmai sake derives its alcohol content solely from rice in the fermentation process. Conversely, brewers add a small amount of neutral spirits to honjozo sake.
The light body and dry, acidic flavor of honjozo sake is ideal for high heat. Honjozo sake can handle heat up to 50°C or 122°F (Atsu-kan). This temperature level produces steam when poured and complements the crisp flavor and sharp aromas. When heated to these levels, Honjozo sake takes on a silky texture and the flavor palate broadens to balance notes from the alcohol.
Taruzake, or sake made in wooden casks, and aged sake are less common than other types of sake. However, their popularity has been on the rise in recent years. The strong, cedar notes of taruzake and the nutty or savory aromas of aged sake make them excellent candidates for heating.
Both taruzake and aged sake can be heated up to nuru-kan and jo-kan temperatures, respectively. These temperature ranges complement the complex flavor profiles and intensify the unique aromas of the sake. However, heating taruzake and aged sake too much will make the flavor too dry and overpower their special characteristics.
The method of heating sake affects the outcome. The biggest influencing heating factors on sake are the length of heating and heat distribution. There are two basic methods for heating sake at home: the tokkuri method and the microwave method. Each method has its pros and cons and a slightly different order of operations. Also, another important thing to do is to get a digital thermometer for cooking.
This method employs a bain-marie method by partially submerging the sake vessel in hot water. The sake inside heats slowly, evenly, and gradually to the desired temperature. Traditionally, this method uses a tokkuri, a vase-shaped, ceramic vessel used in serving sake. Any bottle-type vessel will function similarly. However, the material of the bottle will affect the speed and distribution of heat.
First, fill the tokkuri with sake until roughly 90% filled. Place the tokkuri in the pot and fill it with water until it covers around 2/3 of the tokkuri. Remove the tokkuri and heat the water to a boil. Once boiling, remove the pot from the heat source. Submerge the tokkuri in the hot water. Let the tokkuri sit in the water until sake reaches the ideal temperature.
You can monitor the temperature either using a thermometer or the plastic cover method. With the plastic cover method, place plastic wrap over the tokkuri opening after filling with sake. The sake will expand, touching the plastic, once it reaches roughly 40°C.
The heating time varies based on the material of the tokkuri or other heating vessel. But, when using a ceramic tokkuri, it usually takes two to three minutes to reach nuru-kan and jo-kan temperatures.
Pros: More control over heat; Even heat distribution.
Cons: Time consuming; Requires specialized ware.
For faster heating, or with limited equipment, sake can be heated in a microwave. This method heats sake much quicker than the Tokkuri method, but sacrifices control. The container used to hold the sake also heats unevenly, creating heat pockets in the sake. However, this method doesn’t damage the sake when employed correctly.
Fill a decanter or other microwave-safe vessel with sake until around 90% full. Cover the opening of the vessel with plastic wrap to retain the aroma. Heat 3 oz of sake in the microwave for 20 seconds if using a 600W microwave, or 15 seconds if using a 1000W microwave. Once done, carefully remove the hot vessel and stir the sake inside to help redistribute the internal heat. Cover again with plastic wrap and heat for another 15 or 20 seconds.
Using this method, the resulting sake should reach nuru-kan heat levels in less than 1 minute. However, heating time will vary with microwave strength and heating vessel material.
Pros: Time-saving; Easy access equipment.
Cons: Less control over heat; Uneven heat distribution.
One of the best qualities of sake is versatility and is evident in its ability to be served and enjoyed in a wide range of temperatures. Certain aromatic notes or rounded flavors only appear in some sake when exposed to heat. Experimenting with serving temperature can also lead to new ways to enjoy a favorite sake, or a new favorite to enjoy altogether.