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Warm Sake Toast of the Town for Winter



Before winter begins to grudgingly give ground to warmer weather, be sure to get your share of warm sake.

It is too easy, in this era of premium sake served chilled, to overlook how fine warm sake can be. Should you do your tasting at a sake pub, try to avoid the overheated, cheap stuff. You are not likely to hold it in the highest regard, and you might be discouraged from trying again: a common reaction. Instead, find a decent pub that will warm the sake of your choice to the temperature you want.

Hot sake is known as o-kan,or kan-zake in general. Nurukan refers to sake heated to about 40-45 C, whereas atsukan is piping hot sake. Atsukan has its appeal as a curiosity, but you really can't taste much. Try to stick with slightly less scalding sake.

It is often said that "a good sake is one that can be enjoyed warm as well as cold." Generally, this seems to come from older men in the sake industry, and may be a symptom of nostalgic affection. That may not be the entire story. There is a lot of sake that is fruity and fragrant and complex when cool or cold, but when warmed up is reduced to a lifeless, dull dollop of drool. The very characteristics it was brewed to present are bludgeoned into nonexistence by the heat. It would not be fair to say this is not great sake simply because it is not good when warmed.

Yet, there is indeed plenty of sake that is good both cold and warm.

How do you know? How can you tell if sake will be good when warmed? Fortunately or unfortunately, it is purely an empirical exercise -- a matter of personal preference.

Still, many kura do indeed brew sake to be warmed. You can ask around and poke around and find plenty of brands to get you through the rest of the winter. Any good sake shop can give you recommendations from among their stock.

A sampler of highly recommendable sake for warming might look like this: The below-mentioned Kamoizumi (readily available, even in 7-Elevens around the country), Bizen Sake no Hitosuji from Okayama, Kariho from Akita or Urakasumi from Miyagi. Warm Gokyo from Yamaguchi is wonderful, as is Denshu from Aomori, Tosatzuru from Kochi and Nishi no Seki from Oita. Naturally, there are countless more, but these are all fairly easy to find.

A bit harder to find, but worth the search, are three of my personal favorites, Taki no Koi from the heart of Nada in Hyogo, Shinkame from Saitama and Asahi Tenyu from Shimane.

There seems to be a theory that how you heat a sake affects how it tastes. More precisely, putting sake in the microwave is frowned upon by many tipplers and connoisseurs. Sake warmed in hot water and sake warmed in a microwave taste completely different, or so goes the theory.

Well, I took it upon myself to find out the truth. I am traditionalist in most things, but this just didn't make sense. Energy is energy, and it shouldn't make a hoot of difference. I began with one of my absolute favorites for warmed sake: Kamoizumi from Hiroshima. It is rich, earthy and straw colored; I felt I could easily note any differences that arose.

Next, the vessels. Got to be Bizen. I selected two Bizen tokkuri and two Bizen choko, almost identical. I warmed the tokkuri themselves in warm water beforehand, as they were quite cold off the shelf. I also allowed the sake to come up to room temperature before beginning, to avoid the unpredictability of drastic temperatures changes.

I then got a thermometer. Even slight differences in temperature affect flavor, so let's control the process as much as we can. For those with disposable time and income, I used the O-kan meter, a thermometer specifically designed for tokkuri insertion. It has these wings on the top that keep it from sinking all the way into a tokkuri. You can find it at Seibu Loft for 1,000 yen. A must-buy for sake otaku (geeks).

One tokkuri of sake was heated in a microwave oven, and checked every 20 seconds or so. The other was simultaneously heated in a pan of water over a gas flame. When the temperature of each reached 48 C, my arbitrarily chosen target for the exercise, I had my assistant fill the two choko, not telling me which was which.

And I sipped. And sipped. And slurped, swished and thought. And sniffed. And what did I find?

There was, to my honest and great surprise, a difference. The flame-heated sake was ever so slightly livelier. Almost imperceptible, it was, but there was indeed a difference. The microwaved sake was a bit quieter. It seemed to me that the flame-heated version brought out more of the original nature of the sake.

It wasn't just me. In an equally blind test, my assistant came up with the exact same results. The flame-heated sake was a bit livelier.

We really had to search for that difference, though. We had to try as hard as we could to find it. Considering how much effort went into the flame heating and how little went in to the microwave version, I would go out on a limb and say it isn't worth it. The purists might boil me (or microwave me) alive for saying so, but unless you are going to focus on nothing but the sake, the labor/performance curve is in favor of the microwave.

So, before this winter is over, get your hands on some sake suitable for warming, and check it out -- and warm it in whatever way pleases you.

For an in-depth listing of pubs at which to drink kanzake, as well as an extensive listing of good sake for warming, divided into junmai, honjo and ginjo classes, check out the Web page of the Kanzake Fukyu Kyokai (Kanzake Popularization Association) at shinkmr/kanzake /kanzake.htm.

I don't know who is behind them, but they have plenty of information on warmed sake. There is also plenty of other peripherally related information as well, with lots of pictures of kanzake vessels. Both you and your browser will need to be able to read Japanese.

* * *

Denshu (Aomori Prefecture)
Nihonshu-do: +4
Acidity: 1.7
Seimai-buai: 58 percent

In 1997 a little book, whose title could be loosely translated as "Best Warmed Sake of '97," proclaimed Denshu the No. 1 warmed sake in Japan. Although that is certainly subject to debate, there is no doubt it is good. A faint, flowery fragrance blooms into a fairly dry sake, made seemingly more so by the relatively high acidity. Suffusing the whole flavor is a tender earthiness, a settled richness. This all combines to create sake that is good both warm and cold.

Denshu comes from a kura that also makes a sake called Kikuizumi. The Denshu label is junmai-shu only.

A free sample of the bimonthly newsletter Sake World is available; e-mail me at, or fax your name and address to (03) 3460-8263. Also, to be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, send an e-mail or fax me.

Questions about sake? Ask by e-mail or visit

The Japan Times: Feb. 25, 1999
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