No, hot sake doesn't mean it's low quality

Brad Japhe

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Outside of Japan, sake remains a vastly misunderstood beverage. Even in the United States, where drinkers clamor for all things ‘craft,’ this meticulously-assembled rice wine is curiously outside the realm of our understanding. We know it pairs beautifully with sushi, and a small portion of us can rattle off the basic categories – junmai, honjonzo, ginjo, daiginjo – produced from increasingly polished individual grains of rice.


American connoisseurs insist sake should always be prepared cold, that it is only served warm to camouflage the imperfections of inferior product. The Japanese, however, have been enjoying high-quality warmed sake for generations.

Only now is the practice gaining serious steam in the States. A handful of outposts across the country are advancing the notion that hot sake doesn't mean bad sake, hoping a broader trend will carry with it a wider comprehension of the Japanese spirit. 

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In Manhattan, chef Masaki Saito is a champion of the cause. At his two Michelin-starred Sushi Ginza Onodera, he pairs complex bites of Japanese delicacies alongside carafes of heated alcohol. “Warm sakes pair best with rich, fatty foods,” he explains. “I'd recommend pairing it with otoro tuna, shirako and amberjack. They are all fatty and marbleized which makes them able to withstand the strong taste of the sake and not get overshadowed by it.”

While the combination is often met with skepticism by American diners, Japanese patrons hardly bat an eye. In their native land, the practice – known as ‘okan suru’ – enjoys more than 2,000 years worth of history. They even have a precise term for sake served this way: ‘kanzake’.

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But not all sakes are enhanced through this method. While the hidden complexities of certain styles are revealed when warmed, others fall flat, or gain next to nothing.

Benefiting the trend is the arrival on American shores of a more diverse array of Japanese imports, offering more opportunities to experiment with serving sake at all different temperatures.

"The best sakes to drink warm or hot are the ‘junmai' and ‘honjozo’ types,” advises Saito. “These sakes reveal a delicate, balanced flavor with spicy notes that are elevated by the heat. I'm a very big fan of the brand Manzairaku, which just arrived in the United States recently.” At his own sushi bar, Saito is especially fond of matching it against karasumi (salt fermented squid), as well as his melt-in-the-mouth preparation of ankimo (monkfish liver).

Even though you’re probably not plating such fare in your home kitchen, tinkering with DIY sake is a relatively simple endeavor. The first caveat is to avoid anything with ‘ginjo’ or ‘daiginjo’ on the label. These exceedingly delicate styles come from finely polished grains, offering a bouquet of natural aromas and flavors best showcased at colder temperatures.

Then you’ll need proper heating tools. A large pot is needed to heat water. Into the bath goes the tokkuri – the traditional ceramic carafe used to hold the sake. When the surrounding water is boiling, the sake inside the carafe will get to between 114 to 122 degrees in around 3 minutes. Carefully remove it from the bath, and you’re ready to pour.

If you don’t feel like playing with fire, just about any Japanese eatery with a liquor license is equipped to indulge your experimentation. The ones enlisting higher grade sakes are growing in number, but remain few and far between. In Hollywood, California there’s Waku Waku Sakebar, as well as the newly-opened Inko Nito in downtown Los Angeles. Chicagoans can count on the Murasaki Sake Lounge, while San Francisco – with one of the country’s largest Japantowns – offers dozens of options. Anzu is a safe place to start.

Sake still has serious inroads to lay in this part of the world. But the passionate people and places helping shed the stereotypes are insuring its broadening success. As one of the original ‘craft’ beverages, it is, of course, only a matter of time until American drinkers really warm up to it.


Brad Japhe

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