Undoubtedly one of sake's most appealing aspects is its ability to be enjoyed across a wide range of different temperatures. Depending on the style and profile, flavours and aromas can completely transform when warmed up, and much enjoyment can be found in trying to find the ideal temperature of a particular sake. Ranging from lukewarm to piping hot, with everything in between, this versatility adds another dimension to an already compelling drink, and makes sake truly a beverage for all seasons and occasions.
Unfortunately though, in recent years, the image of warm sake has suffered due to many restaurants outside of Japan serving poor quality sake, or sometimes even other Asian produced spirits labelled as sake, at warmer temperatures. This is very often done in order to mask some of the harsher flavours present in these lower quality beverages. For many, this is both the first and most lasting impression they will have of Japan's national beverage, which as a result has unfortunately led to the misconception that warm sake equals bad sake. Furthermore, this supports the narrative that good sake should always be served chilled or at room temperature.
However, it goes without saying that, only bad sake is bad, and the temperature at which it is served does not determine its overall quality. What's more, to ignore the potential of warming sake, known in Japanese as kan-zake, is to deny yourself one of the most rewarding aspects of this fabulous beverage. Those who do take the time to experiment with different temperatures will soon find that the flavours in sake can evolve with just a slight increase in their temperature, and can be completely transformed when taken to the highest ranges of the spectrum.
Of course, not all sake will be perfectly suited to warming, just as in the same way not all sake is best enjoyed chilled. Therefore, it certainly helps to have some very general guidelines as to which varieties are the most suitable candidates. In this respect, earthy full-bodied styles such as junmai kimoto and junmai yamahai are often recommended for heating as the subtle aromas at room temperature can become softer and more pronounced at warmer temperatures. Conversely, more aromatic styles, often the case with ginjo grades, are best avoided as the delicate aromatics can be lost when heated to the higher temperature ranges.
However, taste is of course subjective, and what one person likes another may not. As is so often the case with sake, experimentation, and keeping an open mind will often lead to rewarding discoveries. In this regards, one fun and interesting technique is to take a particular sake and heat it as high as around 55°C, known as tobikirikan. Once it has reached the desired temperature, enjoy observing the subtle changes in aroma and composition as the sake starts to cool in the cup. This cooled sake is known as kanzamashi, and the taste when you find the sweet-spot will change your relationship with sake forever.
So the next time you open a bottle of sake, try it at a few different temperatures and see what the outcome is. As the chart on the left reveals, there are plenty to choose from. Alternatively, if you are lucky enough to encounter a okanban お燗番 at a Japanese restaurant, Izakaya, or event, place your trust in them serving your sake at the correct temperature. These people are skilled at warming sake, and a good one will know just the right temperature to bring out the best in whatever they are serving.
燗酒 (かんざけ) = Warm Sake
冷酒 (れいしゅ) = Chilled Sake
お燗番 (おかんばん) = Person who warms Sake
燗冷まし (かんざまし) = Sake that has cooled