SAKE: Some Like it HOT
Updated: Aug 5, 2020
I sat down to write a FAQ about Sake, but realized I have way too much to say about Sake served HOT, so let's start with all the questions I get about that.
Is hot Sake bad?
No! A hundred years ago almost all Sake was consumed hot, warm, or room temperature. In Japan, hot Sake is still popular, and statistically, it is the preference among Japanese women. In America, ordering hot Sake usually results in getting a cheaply made or poor quality Sake, but if you still enjoy the flavor, that should not stop you. If someone more experienced has intentionally selected to serve a Sake warm, you can definitely have an elevated experience.
Should I drink it hot?
Maybe! As technology and brewing techniques improved, Sake started being served at many different temperatures, depending on the qualities of the Sake and seasonality. Heating a robust or full-bodied Sake can absolutely enhance rice-forward flavors, including umami, but never more than 60°C (140°F). Past that, many flavors begin to evaporate out of the Sake. To help you visualize, my kitchen tap maxes out at 130°F, and that is too hot to leave my hand under for more than a moment.
Can any Sake be heated?
No! Well... yes physically it can, but you shouldn't heat most. A Sake containing lots of esters (flavors produced by the yeast during fermentation), those are usually best-enjoyed at cold-to-room-temperature. When chilled or aged, esters settle in and combine with other components in Sake to produce flavors that please your sense of taste, like inserting the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Heating Sake unravels these flavors (like throwing the puzzle pieces in the air), causing them to dissipate or hit your tongue in new ways that may or may not be enjoyable, especially with more delicate Sake.
How do I pick a Sake to serve hot on my own?
The best Sake to warm up have fewer esters (sometimes called "ginjo-ka" flavors), and more body or flavors from the rice itself, such as Futsushu, Junmai, Kimoto, or Yamahai Sake. Even then you may prefer their flavor cold. Heating can permanently alter the Sake, so treat it as if there is no going back: Try it cold first, then room temp, then pour a small portion to heat and see what you prefer.
How do I heat and serve hot Sake?
Indirect heat is the only safe way to heat Sake. One method is to boil some water, pour your Sake into a ceramic or earthenwareTokkuri (Sake carafe), insert a thermometer into the carafe and once it's heated, remove it completely from the water, wipe off the bottom, and serve to the table. A simpler, more modern method is to place the Sake bottle or
filledTokkuri in water and then use a Sous Vide to heat the water to your target temperature. Always serve in ceramic or earthenware vessels to retain as much heat as possible. Understand that these will also absorb the heat from the Sake, so preheat them with hot water (or the previous round of hot Sake) if you really want to serve at a precise temperature. Always store Sake cold and away from sunlight when you can, even if you're going to serve it hot.
Can I microwave it?
Why can't I microwave it?
As I understand it, Microwaves heat by exciting the water molecules - in anything, not just Sake. Since Sake is never less than 79% water, this is the fastest and easiest way to denature (i.e. cook) all of the delicate and helpful flavors and nutrients in Sake. Microwaves also heat much faster, making it easier to overheat or superheat your Sake, which is both dangerous and a waste of good Sake.
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