Known as ‘okan’ or ‘kanzake’ in Japanese, hot sake has suffered from a bad rap over the years. Contrary to popular belief, there's no correlation between hot sake and poor quality and that perception is largely misguided.
Historically, the high price of importing sake meant that bars and restaurants outside of Japan generally offered up bottom-shelf varieties and served piping hot in an attempt to mask their impurities. On the other hand, in fancier establishments where premium sake like daijingo and ginjo are in demand, the clued-up owners knew that this type of sake was best served chilled. Hence the wide-spread, ill-informed perception that hot sake equals bad sake while chilled sake is the good stuff.
In Japan however, heating sake is a practice that has been around as long as the beverage itself, dating back to the Jomon period. And because it’s Japan, a culture known for their attention to detail and poetic angles on things, heating sake is not a matter of mere difference between cold, warm or hot – there are 11 distinct temperatures including ‘sunbathed’ and ‘autumn breeze’.
55C and above: tobikiri-kan (literally ‘flying out’), ie scalding
50C: atsu-kan (piping hot)
45C: jyoh-kan (high heat)
40C: nurukan (luke warm)
35C: hitohada-kan (body temperature)
30C: hinata-kan (sunbathed)
20C: hiya/jo-on (room temperature)
15C: suzu-hie (cool, lightly chilled, or ‘autumn breeze’)
10C: hana-hie (‘flower-cold’)
5C: yuki-hie (‘snow-cold’)
0C to -5C: mizore-zake (frozen sake ie, a sake slushie)
Drinking at the right temperature
When you heat sake, the rising temperature affects the dryness, fragrance and balance of flavours. The drink will generally become drier, plus the increase in amino and lactic acids makes it more umami-rich and fragrant while the rice and koji flavours get more prominent.
There are general guidelines around sake varieties and temperatures, but often it just comes down to personal preference. Staff at sake bars are happy to advice on what to drink at what temperature, and many sake labels will display what the producer considers the sake’s ‘sweet spot’ temperature. Nevertheless, here are some general rules:
- Warming sake increases its aroma, so it can make a sharp, dry sake taste more complex and aromatic. But overheating may cause it to taste too sharply alcoholic and acidic.
- Very dry sake can withstand high temperatures. As it already tastes dry and boozy, it’s less at risk of the heat unhinging its inherent characteristics.
- Too much chilling can dull a lively flavour profile.
- Floral, fruity sake like daiginjo and ginjo sake are better served at cooler temperatures to appreciate their delicate taste and mouthfeel. That said, some more robust ginjo really flourish when warmed a little.
- Honjozo and junmai varieties work well heated, which will bring out their complex characteristics, rich rice and koji elements, and notes of cereals and honey, and give them more body as well as a smoother texture.
- Koshu (aged sake) is suitable for heating, which will enhance its already rich flavour profile.
- Nama (unpasteurised) varieties are best served chilled to appreciate their fruitiness and fresh flavours.
How sake is heated and served
Sake can be heated several ways. The most common method is with a saucepan or copper pot filled with water simmering on a stove, or in a temperature-controlled sake ‘hot tub’ called a kansuke. For the saucepan method, a tokkuri (ceramic carafe) of sake will be placed into the pot. For kansuke, a tanpo (a metal cup with a handle, spout, and sometimes a lid) is filled with sake and hung over the side into the bath. Both approaches use a thermometer to measure the precise temperature of the sake. Some bars and izakaya may even have a hot sake dispenser for rapid distribution in cold months.
At home, you can easily recreate the stove-top method (or use a microwave if you’re not bothered about temperature precision or offending generations of sake brewers). Pour the sake into the tokkuri until almost-full, wrap the top to prevent the aromas escaping, place it in a saucepan with water coming about halfway up, and heat the water gradually (not rapidly, despite how thirsty or curious you may be).
How to order hot sake
Unless you know what sake you want and the temperature you’d like to drink it, ask for the staff recommendations. Try these phrases:
‘Sumimasen, kanzake ga arimasu ka?’ (‘Excuse me, do you have hot sake?’)
‘Osusume wa nan deshou ka?’ (‘What would you recommend?’)
Remember, sake is for sipping, not as shots.