Jun 7, 2012

Warmed sake -- finding another charm of sake

I sometimes read articles about sake seminars or events held outside Japan, and it seems that they drink sake chilled or at a room temperature in most cases and drinking sake warm is not very popular overseas.

The Japanese have been enjoying warmed sake for a long time, or they even thought that sake was a beverage to be drunk warmed. In recent years, premium sake such as ginjo, junmai ginjo, or daiginjo sake became widely sold in the general market in Japan, and people began to enjoy these high-end sake products. In most cases, they loved to drink these sakes chilled, while many people continued to drink low-priced regular sake warmed.

So, which is the better way to drink sake, warmed or chilled?

Well, let's think of what happens to sake when it is warmed.

When sake is warmed, it sometimes increases in its foreign, objectionable taste, sometimes increases in its sweetness, sometimes increases in its acidity, and sometimes increases in its good flavors. So, if you warm sake successfully, you may be able to enjoy it better.

Premium sake, especially ginjo sake, is delicately made and such sake is difficult to warm properly, because warming sake tends to detract from its good flavor balance. In addition, ginjo sake, generally, is sufficiently enjoyable without being warmed because it has a clear flavor and a less foreign, objectionable taste. So, people tend not to venture to warm up such sake.

Thus, izakayas or restaurants do not serve warmed premium sake in most cases, and they serve their sake chilled or at a room temperature, instead. In this way, people began to think that only cheap sake is suitable for being warmed and premium sake should not be warmed.

Of course, there is no rule that ginjo sake should not be warmed. There must be beautiful ginjo sake that can be good warmed sake if warmed carefully. Warming up sake may bring about an unexpectedly fascinating flavor (or may ruin delicate balance of flavor).

Actually, I have some successful experiences about warming up sake. For example, I warmed clean and elegant-taste ginjo sake to make it nurukan (lukewarm sake at a temperature of around 40 degrees C or 104 degrees F), getting a result of enhanced acidity, which made better pairing with food. This is a kind of "discovery," and I am often excited at such "discovery," realizing the profundity and charm of the sake world.

By the way, the following expressions are sometimes used regarding warmed sake:

  • kan-agari (燗上がり): The state in which the sake taste has been enhanced by warming it
  • aji ga hiraku (味が開く): The taste of sake that is not recognized very much when it is cold becomes discernible by warming it.
  • kaori ga hiraku (香りが開く)The bouquet of sake that is not recognized very much when it is cold becomes discernible by warming it.
As a flower bud which is very firm in the coldness of winter loosens slowly to open in the spring sun to finally enchant us with its fragrant bloom, when some sake that has been stored at a low temperature is warmed, its virtues including its bouquet and flavor that have been confined in itself become more discernible and enhanced.

Since I have experienced fascinating phenomena such as kan-agari, aji ga hiraku, kaori ga hiraku, I have arrived at the conviction that drinking warmed sake occupies a major part of sake drinking pleasure. I even feel that if you miss chances to experience the virtue of warmed sake, you cannot experience half of the virtue of sake.

Antique sake warmer "kandouko"

I never intend to give you assertive instructions regarding how you drink sake. However, I would like you not to declare that ginjo sake should not be warmed, and if you are interested in warmed sake, I want you to try warm up various sake and drink it by yourself. I believe you can find nice ginjo sake that increases in its beauty when warmed. I really want you to have exciting fascinating experiences with warmed sake.


soul of Japan said...

This is very informative. Thanks. BTW. Are you going to the sake event tomorrow in Tachikawa?

Ichibay said...

Thank you for the comment. Yes, I am going to visit the event for some tasting of sake on Sunday (June 10).