Hot sake has been the norm in the United Statesfor many years and many people have never tasted chilled sake. That is changing, with more and more people seeking chilled sake, and I am often asked now whether people should heat or chill their sake.
In general, premium sake is best served slightly chilled, like a nice white wine. This is not an absolute rule but the flavors and aromas of quality sake are usually best expressed when served slightly chilled. There are some premium sakes which can be served gently warmed but even those should not be served too hot. Too much heat can ruin a premium sake. Unfortunately, many restaurants serve their sake much too hot, almost scalding hot.
The question then arises as to the origins of hot sake and how it became the norm.
InJapan, the first written references to warmed sake derive from the tenth century. By the seventeenth century, it was common to drink warmed sake during the winter. With the start of the eighteenth century, many Japanese started drinking warmed sake year round, partially due to physicians who claimed the warmed sake was good for one’s health. The heat also helped smooth out the sake, toning down bitterness and making it seem sweeter.
During the last one hundred years, sake brewing technology, especially rice polishing, greatly improved. This led to the creation of the premium sakes, Ginjo and Daiginjo, which were more complex and delicate. Heating those sakes would destroy their subtle aromas and flavors. But the first sake that came to the U.S.were not these premium sakes, so the tradition of warming sake took hold. As high quality sake is now available, there is far less need to warm sake so chilling your sake is likely the best option..
Warmed or hot sake usually possesses seems stronger, sweeter and sometimes more pungent aromas and flavors. There is not subtlety and little complexity. Chilled sake is usually smoother, like a fine white wine or even premium vodka. It can have many subtle or strong flavors, as well as far more complexity.
If you are savoring a premium sake, how do you keep it chilled during the course of the evening?
At some restaurants, they might give you the chilled bottle and that is it. It will slowly get warm over the course of the night which can be annoying. So, as you would with a bottle of white wine, ask your server for an ice bucket so you can keep your sake chilled. Fortunately, the more knowledgeable restaurants understand the need to keep sake chilled, and they will serve the sake in an ice bucket without you having to ask. I have also seen restaurants which serve sake in special carafes that possess an inset ‘bubble,’ a place where ice can be put to keep the sake chilled. The ice does not come into contact in the sake so it does not dilute it. At home, keep your sake chilled as you would any white wine.