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Sep 9, 2008 04:46 PM

Sake: hot or cold?

Regarding hot vs cold sake, I don't think it's expensive vs cheap. Cold sake is a pretty modern development. Traditionally it was served warm. In fact, in the Japanese historical dramas they show it being served from teapot-thingies. Most of my middle aged Japanese-immigrant friends drink theirs warm, but that might be generational.

Light-bodied, dry sakes do best chilled, while heavier bodied, sweeter ones are the ones to have heated. The big thing to remember is not to overheat, as that drives off some of the flavor.

I'm not convinced that omakase is a great idea unless you and the chef have a good rapport. Too much risk of getting things you don't enjoy.

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  1. um, cold sake ain't that modern , perhaps you re thinking it only came in with refrigeration? People kept things cold before refrigerators. Sake is really meant to be served cold, unless something is really wrong with it.

    historical dramas are still on TV shows. Heat ruins the subtle flavors of fine sake

    15 Replies
    1. re: Diana

      Gotta disagree with you on that one. Sake is traditionally served warm. Not long ago, cold sake did not exist in Japan. Nowadays, like many things in Japan, it's seasonal, and depends on the sake. (I definitely prefer cold FWIW)
      Also on your previous post, omakase is not always priced according to whim. Not only do many American sushi bars have set price omakase menus, there are many set omakase menus in Japan as well. Kategaiho International has had a couple of articles about these two subjects in the last couple of years.

      1. re: Diana

        Sake intended to be drunk cold is modern. (Meaning late-20th century.) It was developed to combat the rising popularity of beer, giving a cold alternative. Certainly heating it would be defeating the purpose.

        Sake intended to be drunk warm doesn't taste good cold. It has big flavors and bouquet. Think single-malt versus Cutty.

        1. re: Akitist

          and let's not even get in to how modern Edo nigiri is...

          1. re: Akitist

            Thanks for the info, I'm glad you set me straight! I went to my original"source: and showed him you post, and he feels as silly as I do.

            As for Omakase, if it is the best the itame has that day, and really is his choice of what came in, how on earth could he pre-price it? What was traditionally the omakase pricing?

            When I go, I always aviod places with a pre-set price, knowing that I prefer whatever was best that morning (I like to go places where my itame shops daily, if possible. What fish costs what can vary due to market price.

            I know there are places in japan that do set menus and prices, but I figured it was a more modern, consumer driven thing. I mean, in japan there is a place devoted to mayo, in everything from pizza to cocktails. I'm pretty sure just because they do it now in japan doesn't mean they always did!

          2. re: Diana

            Just my experience on this hot vs cold sake issue... My dad's and mom's families were both in Japan's liquor business around the Hiroshima area for many generations - my mom's side until the late 50s when my maternal grandfather retired, and my dad's side up until a few years ago when his brother retired. According to my father from numerous conversations he had about this subject in passing with his brother, there are litterally thousands of sake that are now available in Japan, from small artisans to big breweries, from Japan as well as other countries.

            I think the widespread custom of chilled sake is relatively new (past 30 years), and that the artisan renaissance for sake and other culinary treasures began around or after my last long visit in 1980. This period (late 70s - 80s) coincides with the beginning of the uber-boom of the Japanese economy. This prosperity, along with Japanese societal habit of embracing change while holding on to its core values probably initiated such expansions of views on traditions like sake. This regained more widespread interest in wider and better offerings of cuisine may have spawned more varieties of sake to be brewed, some of which had dryer characteristics and by their nature, could be far more appreciated when served chilled. And I would guess varieties like these had always been brewed for centuries, as there has always been regional differences in Japan's sake. Also, I don't think it would be fair to assume that sake was never drank cold in the past - what one area of Japan does won't always apply to what another does. I could easily imagine someone back in the past in Hokkaido on a cold winter day having no choice but to drink cold sake - and maybe finding he preferred it that way, or someone in more semi-tropical Kagoshima yearning for their sake to be served chilled on a sweltering summer night.

            Another factor is that the Japanese govt had been very prone to creating laws and regs that overwhelmingly favored big businesses - in this case, large breweries, at least until recently. I don't recall if this affected small brewers of sake, but it did for beer, and pretty much wiped out any artisan attempts at beer in Japan until the laws were recently softened.

            When I used to occasionally visit in the summers until 1980, both sides almost always drank their sake warmed at home, as well as when we went out to eat, from hole-in-the-wall joints up to exclusive bars. I had no idea if it was served warm because the stuff was crap, if it was traditional to drink all sake that way, or if it was because the varieties they preferred were to be served that way. However, starting in the late 70s, small ready-to-go cup-shaped glass containers with the aluminum-type pull tops became very popular for their convenience, for outings, etc. Well, the stuff sold in those glasses weren't of the best quality - many would still traditionally warm the stuff in boiling water at home, on picnics, boats, etc., or microwaved it as well. Some would drink it at ambient temp - like my uncle and his business partners on fishing trips (still remember them carelessly tossing the lids off the boat into pristine waters - argh!) But I would see some also drink it on the rocks or pull it out of the coolers and drink it chilled. Back then, my fraternal uncle told me that they'd drink it chilled or on the rocks because it was inferior grade, and the cold would subdue the bad taste. He said that by serving sake warm, one got the full flavor and smells of sake. I always thought that they warmed it because it got them smashed faster - after a tokkuri or two along with a few litres of Sapporo Nama (Sapporo nama came it huge two-litre bottles), I'd see there faces light up and the day's concerns would melt away.

            1. re: bulavinaka

              I remember when you could get Sapporo in the 2 litre bottle right out of the vending machines located in a zillion little stores in Japan. I also remember the machines that had bottle of Suntory whiskey, but that's best forgotten.

              I was there when the government passed a law that made the machine owners turn them off at midnight.

              Those were the days....

              1. re: bkhuna

                :) The Japanese do trust their youth, don't they? My kids got a kick out of seeing these machines last summer. "C'mon, daddy, let's get some beer - the big can - I wanna put the money in the machine - you can drink it!" A dad's work is never done...

                1. re: bkhuna

                  That distinct sound of a big jug of Asahi thunking its way though the machine has stayed with me even after near twenty years.

                  We often wondered how many would fit in those vending machines, and am ashamed to say we were never able to drink enough to find out...

                  As far as sake back then in Japan, I do remember drinking hot sake on the muggiest of evenings, but I don't remember seeing cold or even room-temp sake offered anywhere. That is not to say it didn't exist as I wasn't really looking for it, nor is it to say as ignorant young foreigners looking to get drunk that we didn't drink it that way if "necessary".

                  1. re: healthyscratch

                    Most of the really fine sakes these days are served cold.

                    If you're ever in SF, go to True Sake, it's areal great Sake place and a true education! A good place to pick up Nama Sakes


                    Here is a quote from their FAQ:

                    "I thought sake is supposed to be served hot. Why do you recommend drinking sake slightly chilled or at room temperature?

                    Do you know why they typically serve sake piping hot at your local sushi haunt? Because the sake is not that good, and if you really heat it up then this masks the flavor of the bad sake. This is a throw back method to when sake just wasn't that good, when it wasn't as refined as it is today. The hotter you make it, the less you will taste how rough and boozy it can be.

                    But alas, it is only up to you at what temperature you prefer your sake. And if you have grown accustomed to the therapeutic nature of hot sake then select a sake that performs better when heated up. And also please note sake can be enjoyed at many different temperatures including chilled, cool, room, slightly tepid, gently warmed, warmed and hot. There have been many studies that indicate that sakes perform best at chilled temperatures, but once again it is up to you and what feeling you like. Our motto is, "Once you go cold, you never go back!" "

                    1. re: Diana

                      Hi Diane, I'm no expert on this subject but I feel my families had a fair amount of experience. I think it would be improper to make a blanket statement that the stuff pre-True Sake just wasn't that good. Both of my families sourced sake from many brewers for various reasons - one being that no two were the same. My uncle felt just the opposite about how temperature affected the sake experience - his view was widely shared. And I think in some sense, both are true. If you chill it enough (think of an overchilled white wine), the true essence of the drink will be muted - good or bad. Likewise, if you "serve sake piping hot" - which is not proper - much of the flavors and heatiness will have dissipated. I don't know if what you state about sake is what True Sake claims. If it is, I think it's an injustice on their part. If there's one thing that I can adamantly proclaim, sub-par is not acceptable and has never been acceptable in this culture. Inferior versions of anything will be found, but for all sake to be inferior or not refined? Someone is blowing smoke over there. And for the fact that artifacts like tokkuri and masu have been around for centuries from the most humble to those appropriate only for nobility tells me that there is a deep and respected culture for this brew.

                      One of the truths about post-New Meiji Japanese culture is that reaching out beyond tradition is acceptable but holding on to tradition is crucial. And what you state about preference on temperature of this drink is probably no truer than now. Another truth is that the Japanese love to analyze things to death. If whatever studies or experiments currently feel that the true ethos of sake in general is better revealed when chilled, then many will embrace it - that is the Japanese way. But I have a strong feeling that tradition will prevail.

                      1. re: bulavinaka

                        I was quoting True Sake;s FAQ, you'll see if you read carefully. I have heard and read this from more than one source.

                        I think what True Sake's answer really meant (go back and re-read it) was that different sakes were at their optium a different temps, depending upon the brewery, type and such. Even they say that if people want hot sake, they should buy one that tastes best hot, and they mention room temp and chilled for different ones.

                        I like Sake's that are at their finest a little chilled. Not all Sakes are best this way, I imagine. But many are outstanding!

                        Sub par may not be acceptable, but it happens, even in Japan, where sushi has thick sauces put on when the fish isn't so fresh. That wan't started in the US, you know. Even in Japan, there were, and always have been, inferior sakes. As anywhere, the rich could afford better and many families had their own brew at home that just wasn't the same, but still good.

                        To think of sake as only a super fine perfect thing is the true injustice! Sometimes, a lesser sake is the perfect accompaniment to a certain dish. Sometimes the finer stuff is just not right, or too delicate, or just tastes wrong.

                        We need to think of "less refined" as not necessarily "bad".

                        Even the best Geisha in the world had to create an error in her make up-perfection is not real, and not best.

                        1. re: Diana

                          Hi Diane, got it. I hope I didn't imply that sub par doesn't exist in Japan - it does, and I mentioned it upthread in my original post. I was referring to what sounded like in (I think what was) your reference to "when sake just wasn't that good..." part which sounded like no good brews existed at all back then so heating the stuff was just accepted practice in order to be able to knock back the equivalent of moonshine.

                          FWIW, I always enjoy reading your posts - I don't think there are many posters who have the breadth of knowledge that you do, in particular about those great beers... :)

                          1. re: bulavinaka

                            Gosh, that's really flattering. Thank you!

                    2. re: healthyscratch

                      When you're walking to the train station at 1 AM and it's freezing cold with snow flurrings whirling about, the machine that serves up hot cans of Ozeki one-cup are a welcomed sight.

                      And who can forget the ever present pan of water on top of the space heater, a perfect place to keep your sake warm and fend off the chill of living in a traditional Japanese farm house.

                    3. re: bkhuna

                      Yes, but the retail law also changed a few years ago. It was loosened. So now nearly every convenience store sells alcohol and most are open all night. Many stores have admirable little selections of beer, chuhai, nihon-shu, shochu, and whiskey- even gin. The good 'ole days are now....Only thing is, they removed the beer machine from the platform at Kannai Station in Yokohama a few years ago!

                2. Personally, I enjoy sake room temperature. Most wine too... I can taste it best like this.

                  1. Most premium sake these days, whether it is dry or sweet, is served chilled or at room temperature. "Premium" usually refers to how much the rice used to brew the sake has been polished. The more it is polished, the more premium it is. The center portion of the rice grain can yield very complex, subtle aromas and flavors which will not stand up to being heated. So rice polishing technology may have something to do with the increase in boutique brewing of sake and hence, the custom of serving it chilled. I believe older methods of brewing sake polished the grains less. And so more husk was made into the beverage. Also wooden containers were used to store the beverage. The combination of these factors and the fact that sake used to be sweeter, seems to have made it much more palatable when warmed. Today though, at the really good sake pubs in Tokyo, the good stuff is not heated. But warmed sake, of more pedestrian quality, is still popular at home or at restaurants. And you can also buy self-heating cans of sake at the convenience stores.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Silverjay

                      Thanks - your priceless info fills the great void of "to the present" timeline that I had a big ? on... Wow - self-heating cans - what next? Maybe a sake version of the Wine Pod?

                    2. A room temperature wood box of premium saki, overflowing into the saucer....that's the beginning of a beautiful friendship...

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Veggo

                        Drunk from a wooden rice measure box for true friendship.

                        1. re: Passadumkeg

                          Drinking from the same "tokkuri" is a much better (and common) bonding experience.

                      2. I'll drink a mediocre scoth with ice, but a great one neat. It's the same with sake. At room temp...