For many of us, our first encounter with sake was in a hot version, a popular form of serving this delicious beverage. For me, hot sake sparks memories of gatherings at local ‘Mom-and-Pop’ sushi restaurants, in most cases, inexpensive and of a somewhat traditional fashion.
The presentation is romantic and memorable: a tokkuri or ceramic vessel, commonly 10 ounces, holding near-boiling sake is presented at the table with small ceramic cups called ochoko. Historically, the ceremonial enjoyment consists of pouring for the people around you, and, consequently, the nearest person pouring for you.
The question often arises, is hot sake a lower or cheap version? There are a number of responses, depending on whom you ask.
Sake wasn’t always the refined version that we encounter today. At some point, it was rough, funky and somewhat flawed. By heating up sake, you hide away some of those imperfections and make it easy to ingest.
Think of it as a $3 bottle of white wine that you picked up at your local supermarket on a Tuesday evening: you put it in the freezer for an hour or two and then drank it very cold, by doing this you hide any off flavors and aromas, making it neutral and satisfying.
Enjoying hot sake is during the winter months makes total sense: it warms the soul and uplifts the spirit. Some regions of Japan experience drastic winters with feet upon feet of snow, and there’s nothing more rewarding than going into your favorite izakaya (Japanese pub), bar or home and having a hot cup of sake awaiting.
Some styles of sake are best enjoyed hot, warm or at room temperature rather than the recommended 45 to 50 degrees for the purest expressions. Look for labels that have the word Futsushu, Junmai, Honjozo, Yamahai or Kimoto. Most of this refers to the milling percentage on the grain of rice. Think about a grain of brown rice: sake production requires some of the outer layer to be removed. The less you take away, the more richness and earthy flavors remain.
Futsushu is the most popular style of sake, lower than 30 percent milled away — basically everyday sake. Not to be avoided, this style offers a complex and upfront approach with tones of nuts, mushrooms and oxidation generally with a price that is easy on the wallet.
Junmai refers to a polishing of 40 percent or less with an expressive attack and a bold and rounded mouthfeel.
Honjozo has the same milling limitations as junmai but it has brewers’ alcohol added. Don’t be scared of the word alcohol; in this style, amounts of a distillate are added to the final product and then diluted further with water in order to bring down the alcohol by volume (ABV) to around 16 percent, which is common in the sake world. This style offers an enhanced aromatic output with a leaner mouthfeel and long finish.
Yamahai and Kimoto refer to the old methods of making sake, the fermentation periods to be exact. Generally with the modern method, sake requires around two weeks to ferment. Yamahai and Kimoto require about a month. The longer period allows for more flavors and aromas to layer the final product; you will find a gamey flavor, almost meaty in some cases. These styles are not shy and best paired with hearty meals like Grandma’s short ribs recipe.
There are a few heating methods for sake. The most common and easiest to try at home is a basic hot bath. Heat water in a large bowl to a boil, pour sake in a smaller metal vessel, ideally aluminum, and leave it for about three minutes. Test it on the back of your hand; you’ll know when is too hot. Avoid using a microwave unless it’s your last resource.
At a commercial level and even some serious sake-drinking households, a square machine that plugs to electricity is used. It’s basically same idea: water is heated continuously though. The other method you’ll see at restaurants is one where they put a large sake bottle or sake box on top of a heating machine, and it will heat as a dispensing handle is pulled.
Some useful terms in Japanese are atsukan, which means hot, and nurukan, which translates to body temperature. A couple brand recommendations for heating are Gunma Izumi Honjozo from Gunma 720ml at $29 and Yamada Shoten ‘Everlasting Roots’ Tokubetsu Junmai from Gifu Prefecture 900ml at $28.