This is an adaptation of an earlier published Japanese article.
Welcome to the magazine that brings you little nuggets of information about sake. In this article we tackle that age old question: is sake best served warm or chilled?
To answer the question from an overseas-experience perspective. There have so far been 3 phases.
Phase 1. Sake is best served warm
Phase 2. Premium sake must always be served chilled
Phase 3. Every sake has an optimum temperature
Phase 1. Sake is best served warm
In the U.K. and U.S for example, for a long time the trend was definitely to drink it warm. For some people it became an obsession, an obsession that developed from a misconception which was partially engineered by the industry itself.
Due to the high price of importing sake a large portion of the first sakes were lifeless, dull, boring and in the worst — although thankfully really rare— cases, undrinkable mush. Such sakes are much more amenable at around 70-80 degrees, at the point when the sake starts to bubble like a volcano and almost burns your tongue. To make matter worse, a lot of importers simply didn’t know or have the facilities to properly look after the sake after it had made land. Of course, there was a small stream of premium sakes that would make its way into the higher-end eateries — the eateries with the customers who were willing to pay what it cost to import better quality sake, and among these the Japanese expat run establishments — eateries that knew how premium sake should be served. And then there were the Chinese restaurants which would serve something like Shaoxing wine and rather audaciously refer to it as Japanese sake. A lot of suppliers jumped on the bandwagon of course — who can blame them— and saw an opportunity to flog warming machines for the task. This of course, only served to cement the trend into the consciousness. And thus, the misconception was born.
A sense of desperation to promote more premium sakes and stop people from serving them warm and destroying their flavour lead to phase 2, in effect the complete opposite scenario to phase 1. Yes, you’ve guessed it, we started to tell people that premium sake must always be served chilled. Well actually, this was not entirely incorrect information, just a little narrow minded. This trend should not be overlooked though because it was as hard to shake as the warm-sake trend once it took root.
Well this is where we are now, the answer to the question at hand—perhaps the best phase: every sake has an optimum temperature. Actually, phase 3 is a relatively new development, a revolution, not just overseas, but here in Japan too.
That being said, locating each sake’s unique optimum temperature is not as realistic as it sounds in practice, at least without a professional to guide you.
Which brings us to the main subject of this article: how temperature affects the flavour of sake.
The Traits of Sake Served Chilled
Chilled sake refers to sake at a temperature of about 5-10 ℃. In general, the Ginjo type with its strong floral aroma tends to get drunk at this temperature: doing so enhances the aroma and from the minute the sake touches your tongue you can feel it gently melting away. Another welcome effect is the masking of off flavours. On the other hand, chilling sake also makes the flavour too uniform, taking away the thrill of such types. A low temperature can also put strong aromas to sleep, wastefully concealing them in the process.
The Traits of Sake Served at Room Temperature
You might think that room temperature is something between warm and chilled, but you would be wrong. It is actually much more challenging to serve sake at room temperature than the term would suggest. The general assumption is that 15-20℃ is room temperature, but it is actually much more like a mid-point between not being lukewarm and not being cold. This is also the temperature of choice in most professional tasting events and competitions. The best way to serve sake at room temperature is: to let the sake sit for a couple of minutes at ‘room temperature’ after taking it out of the fridge before serving.
The Traits of Sake Served Warm
One of the real thrills of sake and something that sets it apart from other libations has got to be the fact that you can serve it warm. The best temperature is between 30-40℃. This serving style is called Nurukan (lukewarm / shower water temperature) in Japanese. Anything higher than this is called Atsukan. Sake tends to develop a noticeable change in 10 degree intervals which offers up a myriad of different taste experiences. Generally speaking, when you warm sake the quantity of amino acids and lactic acid multiplies. Kimoto in particular is a very good style to try this way as it develops more body as a result of warming. You might feel the alcohol more with warm sake, but you can also cut out the bitterness and off-flavours, making it a perfect drinking style for the less accustomed drinker.
There are two types of sake that really aren’t suitable for serving warm.
Sweet sake just becomes sweeter and sweet sake that was once silky smooth becomes coarse and sticky.
Serving this type of sake warm simply destroys it delicate aroma. Every now and then, an exception pops up but in general it is best to steer clear of this faux pas.
Note: Sake that is suited to be served warm is called Kanagari in Japanese.