FLORAL OR FRUITY, clean or savoury, fresh as the first snowfall or sweet and soft like dessert, there are as many flavours of sake as there are arguments on how best to enjoy them. Should they always be enjoyed chilled, between 7 to 13 deg C like with white wine? Or served warm and comforting like a hot toddy when the weather’s nippy?
The correct, if slightly infuriating answer, is that it depends.
“Sake is one of the few alcohols that can be enjoyed at a variety of temperatures,” shares Adrian Goh, head sommelier and director of premium sake distributor Inter Rice Asia. “So it would be unwise to totally ignore the versatility of the beverage.”
That only cheap sake is to be drunk warm because of how the heat masks the drink’s inferiority is a myth that needs to be debunked. “Breweries like Daishichi, Kokuryu and Tatsuriki are making high-end sakes that are good chilled or warmed,” says Goh.
A Precise Method
Personal preferences and weather aside, there is a general guideline for choosing a sake’s serving temperature. “Sakes that are more full-bodied and richer, like junmai, yamahai and kimoto styles of sake are best served warm because these types of sake are not very aromatic and their flavour profiles will peak at a higher temperature,” says Goh. “Heating loosens up the sake, releasing sweet notes and reducing bitter elements while also unlocking more umami. The texture also tends to become smoother.”
For sake newcomers, the junmai label refers to sake that has been made only with rice, water, yeast and koji (rice with mould cultivated into it), with no additives. Yamahai and kimoto are labour-intensive styles that are characterised by their lack of additional lactic acid in the yeast starter, typically resulting in sakes that are gamier and tangier.
To properly warm sake, place the tokkuri in a pot of boiling water for two to three minutes, or until the sake rises to the mouth of the decanter. Microwaving tends to lead to overheated sake, and is not advised. If you want to leave it to the pros, Donpachi Sake Bar and Ryu’s Cafe & Sake Bar have the proper equipment for a perfectly warmed brew.
For chilled sake, Goh recommends daiginjo and junmai daiginjo styles. Because daiginjo is made by polishing at least 50 per cent of the rice away, the resulting sake tends to be delicate, complex and aromatic. Heating this type of sake may cause the aromas to be overwhelming or unbalanced. “However, if you start to drink it chilled and let it warm up gradually, you may unlock interesting flavours,” he offers.
Even when chilling, moderation is key. “If a sake is too cold, perhaps below 5 deg C, the aromas will be very closed up. Sake that is very sweet tend to fare better in those circumstances. Otherwise I would recommend serving it between 8 and 12 deg C.”
A Matter Of Taste
When it comes to food pairing, it’s hard to go wrong. Thanks to sake’s high amounts of umami, it works more harmoniously with food than wine does. “I might just use warm sake for warm food and cold sake for cold dishes, but it depends on the specific dish and the flow of the courses,” he says. “Warm sake has the ability to better disperse flavours, so I might pair that with a tasty piece of meat so that its flavours spread around the mouth more.”
Sake may be a symbol of Japan, but the beverage’s adaptability and accessible flavours ensures that it can be enjoyed anywhere, any time, with any food and, now we know, at any temperature.