Sake Season - Brrrrr! Time To Warm Your Brews
Quick - name two different fermented boozes that you can warm up to drink when the temp goes down? Ummmm "Mulled spice wine" - That's one. Stuck on number two aren't you? Still stuck? "Hot Toddies"? Nope - doesn't count! Neither does hot rum and cider, Irish coffee, or flaming shots. You can't name more because there aren't more. And therein rests one of the original appealing aspects of hot sake. It was so unique - "a warm booze" - that many tried hot sake for the novelty of it.
I wont go over the whole backlash that has occurred recently in terms of people "group thinking" that hot sake is inferior sake. This trend line of thinking has kept us pretty busy at the store telling people that hot sake does not mean crappy sake - as we say, "bad sake heated up makes for bad hot sake!" Some are skeptical; more are dubious, and most just claim that they will stick with cold sake.
I also won't get into what "bad hot sakes" people are drinking. It's not my place to say that locally made sake that comes in large boxes meant to be perched on dispensing machines is "inferior" sake. It is what it is! (In an informal survey - read very informal - most of my "Japanese friends prefer Ozeki, most of the party people prefer Sho Chiku Bai, and most of my foodie friends prefer Gekkeikan.)
In a word, every sake has a sweet spot when it comes to temperature. Some are lucky enough to have sweet spots at several temperatures. If one had to "generalize" and yes we writers love to "generalize" I would say that typically Daiginjo sakes are meant to be served chilled - Ginjo sakes are meant to be served slightly chilled - and Junmai/Honjozo brews reside in the room temperature and warming zone. Ergo when you want a brew to warm or heat excessively (not recommended but its your tongue that you will crisp like bacon ala "Ohhh I burnt duh dip of dy dongue) think Junmai/Honjozo. Now this is not to say that there aren't great Daiginjos and Ginjos that take the heat well. (Some of my favorite warming sakes cost in excess of $75 a bottle)
Many moons ago I was in Osaka at a great Izakaya with a tremendous sake list. There were a ton of sakes that I had heard about and wanted to try, but one regular patron heard us speaking about "nihonshu" and felt compelled to send over a chilled carafe for our table. We graciously accepted and tasted the very nice and balanced cold Daiginjo. After finishing the carafe and thanking the gentlemen profusely (you always thank profusely in Japan) I broke out the list again and hungrily perused the wicked offering of hard-to-get sakes. But before I could order another carafe came to our table - same nice guy pointing to the carafe saying "you will like." And yes I did like it a lot - a very well balanced room temperature brew. (Wash-Rinse- Repeat) Again when we finished and thanked I went to order a brew that I longed for, and you guessed it - another tokkuri came out with a gently warmed sake. And yes there he was smiling saying "you will like this." And of course we did. (But by this point I had caught on - the same sake!) And to make this short story longer - he did it again making the sake hot - and it too was wonderful. Point being - same sake drinking so well at most of the temperature zones - A Daiginjo no less!
So now back to the concept of drinking good sake meant to be made into good hot sake - or in more betterer English sake that is good for warming. What is the secret - what is the trait - what is the common bond that makes for good warming sake? Again call General Generalizer! There is an entire school of "thinker/drinkers" who swear that dry sakes make for the best heating brews. Likewise there is an equally large camp of "drinker/thinkers" who counter and say that a semi-sweet brew with more body takes heat better. But everybody who drinks and thinks are in agreement that fruity sakes do not heat well at all! (In general). I drink and I think and I believe that "feel" has as much to do as taste when heating a brew. And I prefer thicker/fatter sakes with more texture and viscosity. I'm not keen on the booziness that sometimes occurs when heating a brew - and I feel that with more body comes a less harsh heating alcohol heat.
Now here comes a really bad analogy for finding a brew that may speak to you in a steamy and sultry voice. When starving to death in a tropical jungle - after your plane went down - and you have no chance of killing that wild boar that just ran by - the experts recommend that you eat berries and fruits (yes before ants and grubs)! But some berries kill! Yes - think of "Boo-berry" taken to the extreme. So which are edible and which will source you for a dirt nap? The experts recommend that you take a couple of the found berries and rub them on your wrist. If you get inflamed then don't eat! They then recommend that you rub a little of the berries on your gums. If they burn - or you immediately puke - don't eat! Then they say that you should ingest a very small portion and wait. If your belly explodes then don't eat. If you have no reaction then try a slightly larger portion etc. Basically I recommend the same with your sakes. If you have a brew that you love chilled - then try it slightly chilled - then room temperature - then slightly warmed - then hot. It may work! It may not. (The great thing about sake is that if you don't finish the bottle for one day, one week, one month it is always a good candidate for heating.) Personal exploration with heating sake is the best! It's like finding a pair of old jeans that you lost way back in the closet. They still fit and now they are retro! Yes!
Here are ten quick facts about heating sake:
- Use a Microwave? Only if you have three minutes to live!
- Place the actual bottle of sake in hot water bath? Yes - works okay! (Smaller bottle recommended - 300ml - and always remove cap)
- Place dried fugu (blowfish) fin in the sake? - Yes, but have it in a large ceramic cup that has a lid - place fin in cup then add hot sake and let steep under the lid for three to four minutes.
- Drink hot sake out of a coffee mug? - No not recommended as the brew will cool down over time. It is best to use the little "o'choko" (small ceramic cups) and keep refilling with hot sake.
- Put sake directly in a teakettle and place over heat? No not really recommended but that is how many brewery workers do it! (old school)
- Use sweet or floral or delicate premium sakes? No not recommended - these brews lose their balance quicker than dry, semi-sweet, full- bodied, or viscous sakes.
- Drink hot sake in a hot tub? Yes, this is the recommended temperature as drinking cold beverages in scalding water can make ones tummy cramp up.
- Drop a hot sake into a cold beer and down it? Ummmmm no comment - but please note to do this without warning in Japan could cause chins to hit the table!
- Turn flame off before placing "Tokkuri" (tall chimney shaped heating vessel) in boiling water? Yes - this method of slow heating is preferred even at the risk of losing some evaporating alcohol. (Others think a quicker heat captures the alcohol and flavor)
- Feel the sides of the "tokkuri" to guess what temperature the heated sake is at any moment? No - that will give you the water temperature! Rather pick up the tokkuri from the bath and touch the concaved bottom that traps an air bubble, which gives the contents temperature.
When it is could outside - sake is the best warmer around! Even if you think that you do not like hot sake, there is a small chance that you will - so stop denying yourself one of the greatest aspects of this stellar libation.