March 2010

Miwa Miwa - Sake Thoughts From A Sake Explorer

Posted by Beau Timken in 2010, March, Newsletter
Miwa This is the newest addition to the True Sake Newsletter! Did you know the word "Miwa" was an ancient name for sake? You do now! So please enjoy "Sake Thoughts" from Miwa the manager and new Partner of True Sake.


The temperature at which to drink sake is a frequently asked question in the store. Many people have had hot sake that is harsh, and their perception of okan-zake (warm sake) is ruined forever. On the other hand, some say "premium sake" is only drunk cold. The good news is that sake (Nihon-shu) is a rare alcoholic beverage: it can be enjoyable cold, hot, and everything in between.

Historically speaking, sake has always been consumed at different temperatures. During the mid Heian period (794-1185), sake was said to be heated directly in a copper pot. In the mid Edo period (1603-1867), iron pots, specifically made to warm sake, were introduced. During this period, sake was enjoyed warm through the fall and winter months. By the late Edo period, however, sake was consumed warm throughout the year.

Moving fast forward, there are styles of sake made today that did not exist back then. The aromatic and fruitier sake that is made with highly polished rice and is fermented at low temperatures, know as Ginjo-shu. (Here, Ginjo-shu is a sort of all inclusive term that includes Junmai Daiginjo, Daiginjo, and Junmai Ginjo.) Most of the Ginjo-style sake and nama-zake (unpasteurized sake) are meant to be served chilled. However, there are always exceptions. You can have a great warm daiginjo to complex warm nama-zake, etc.

When customers ask for sake that is good for warming, we tend to suggest Junmai-style. They are more rice-like, savory, creamy or earthy. In my humble understanding, Junmai tends to include more lactic and succinic acids (while malic and citiric acids are in Ginjo- style.) These become enhanced and evolve as flavor elements while the sake warms up. But again, not all Junmai are created equal. Some of them do better in the cold zone.

For seasoned sake tasters, you all know through your experience that there are "sweet temperature spots"-as Beau calls it-for each sake. For example, flavors of certain sake blossom when it goes from refrigerator-cold to slightly-chilled or to comfy warm. For those of you who are relatively new to sake, I highly recommend going outside your comfort zone and explore sake at different temperatures. This will open up a whole new world for those of you who have never tried it.

Ten basic temperature zones are rather poetically named in the world of Ninhon-shu (sake). Folks in the sake business know these terms, but I must admit, sometimes I have hard time recalling all the terms in the right order. I thought it would be good "sake homework" to review these terms, learn to convert Celsius and Fahrenheit on the fly (when you cannot find your smart phone) and noting how the sake changes between these hot and cold zones.

Temperatures and Terms:
My loose translation are in ( ).

55C / 131F: Tobikiri-kan ("jumping" hot)
50C / 122F: Atsu-kan (hot)
45C / 113F: Jo-kan (warm)
40C / 104F: Nuru-kan (luke warm)
35C / 95F: Hitohahda-kan (skin warm)
30C / 86F: Hinata-kan (sunshine warm)
21C / 60F: The human tongue is supposed to be at its most sensitive, being able to detect many taste components.
20C / 60F: Jo-onn (room temperature) - or should I say San Francisco summer temp?
15C / 59F: Suzu-hie (cool chill)
10C / 50F: Hana-hie (flower chill) - why flower? I need to investigate.
5C / 41F: Yuki-hie (snow chill)


Celsius (C) = (F-32) x 0.55
Fahrenheit (F) = 1.8 x C + 32

Flavor Changes:

My homework sake tonight is Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai (Ishikawa prefecture), which Beau opened the night before. The sake is known to be big, rustic, and hearty: classic Ishikawa-style. I decided to taste the sake at 5C degree increments, from cold to hot and to note my very first impression in just a few words.

-5C / 23F: Beautiful liquid candy. (Note: this is way off of the proper serving temperature.)

0C / 32F: Sour, cooked sugar, reminds me of the color amber. Coffee-like after taste with a syrup-like texture. (Note: this is still off of proper serving temperature.)

5C / 41F: Sweet and sour, acidity lingers and turned into "kire", a sense of dry finish.

10C / 50F: Mineral! Salt-like as in a grain of sea salt in fancy hand-made caramel candy.

15C / 59F: Still sweet but in ume-shu (plum sake) way, and bitterness emerges as a new element.

20C / 60F: Bright acidity as in high % cocoa chocolate, on the verge of being fruity, like sipping flat cream soda with a thick slice of lemon.

25C / 77F: Like high acidity coffee with cream, the texture is gentle for the first time, the acidity is well wrapped in the texture.

30C / 86F: Trace of melon with lemon wedge, like eating tangy sorbet at room temperature, sake feels most acidic so far.

35C / 95F: Bright (from acidity) and smooth at the same time, like sweet grapefruit.

40C / 104F: Smooth, almost transparent, and bitterness is gone. Acidity gives crispness yet delicate layer to the taste, a feeling of hollowness follows after a sip. Sake feels light & airy.

45C /113F: Super bright, acidity is very pronounced. Sweet and sour. Much lighter texture compared to 5~10C zones. Feels like hot lemonade.

50C / 122F: Like having lemon herbal tea with a pinch of sugar.

55C / 131F: Texture is very light. Acidity and sweetness are now suppressed, and rice taste is back.


Well, this was fun. I was pleasantly surprised by the mineral tones at 10C, and my favorite temperature was 40C. This was first time I tasted one sake in so many different ways. It takes some time, and you may consume more sake than you intended, but the outcome is worthy. So, get your sake thermometer out and find your sweet spot!

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