The hot sake guide

Sake is unique in that it can be enjoyed at a wide range of temperatures, from very cool (5°C) to very hot (60°C). Fresh sake is called "Reishu", room-temperature sake is called "Hiyazake", and hot sake is called "Kanzake".

Hot sake served with oden

The practice of heating sake is thought to have originated in Nara in the 8th century, but it was already traditional in continental Asia, and particularly in China, to consume certain alcoholic beverages warm or hot.

Hot sake is consumed at the coldest times of the year, between the remarkable dates of September 9, or kiku no sekku, Chrysanthemum Day, and March 3, momo no seku, Peach Blossom Day. That said, some regions (and some people) drink hot sake all year round. In fact, there's a part of southern Japan, including the prefectures of Yamaguchi, Hiroshima and Okayama, where many kura specialize in making sake to be drunk hot all year round! A national competition is held here every year, and there's even a hot sake festival in March.


Hot sake tasting in an onsen

It's only fairly recently that the practice of toasting sake has spread around the world. It corresponds to the availability of the first exported sake, first in the USA, then in Europe. It's a habit that transports the consumer in the blink of an eye into the exotic world of Japanese traditions, and one that's still very much alive, even if the arrival of premium categories has changed things somewhat.

We offer you this short guide to hot sake, which we hope will help you find the right bottle, the best method, and the ideal temperature to optimize your tasting experience.

When should you drink hot sake ?

As mentioned above, some people drink hot sake all year round, but it's more often associated with colder times of the year because of its comforting character. Enjoyed with meals, it goes perfectly with warm winter dishes, broths and soups, simmered meats and vegetables, and fondues.


Izakaya comfort food with hot sake

For those who have had the opportunity to visit Japan in winter, the first hot sake tasted on arrival at the counter of an izakaya has certainly left a lasting impression.

What's the point of heating sake ?

Heating sake will affect its texture in the mouth, making it rounder, fuller and fuller-bodied. As for the aromas, they reveal themselves, intensify and new ones emerge for an even more gourmet taste experience. A particular advantage is given to the fullest-bodied, richest sakes. Warm sake coats and sublimates any accompaniment, such as Otsumami, those small Japanese dishes enjoyed informally over a glass.

What types of sake to heat ?

Not all sakes are suitable for toasting. Ginjo and Daiginjo sake, considered delicate, are generally enjoyed chilled or at room temperature. To heat them would be to extinguish all or part of their beautiful floral and fruity flavors and, above all, their expressive nose. The same applies to unpasteurized sakes (namazake), which would lose all the freshness that makes them so interesting. There are, however, a few exceptions in these categories.


Sake classification, which sakes can be heated?

Futsuushu, Honjozo or Junmai, produced from less highly polished rice, generally have robust flavors with cereal and lactic tones that will benefit from heating. The distinctive acidity and aromatic power of sakes made using the Yamahai and Kimoto methods will also benefit.

Sake tasting temperatures

This diagram covers all tasting temperatures, from cool to warm. Some names poetically evoke very real sensations (Yukibié: the temperature of snow, Hanabie, the fresh spring breeze, or Hitohadakan, the temperature of the skin).

Names of different sake temperature ranges

How to find the right temperature ?

First of all, if you want to experience tasting the same bottle (a Junmai, for example) at different temperatures ranging from cool to hot, we advise you to start with the lowest temperatures, then heat it up (and not the other way round).

On the other hand, should you decide to heat a sake (to 55°C, for example), it's a good idea to continue tasting while letting the temperature drop in the tokkuri. This will enable you to notice differences in flavor depending on the temperature, and find the one you like best.

How to heat sake ?

At home, you can use two methods that require very little equipment.

In a bain-marie : first rinse a tokkuri with hot water to remove impurities, then start heating. Fill the tokkuri with sake and place in a pan filled with water, then heat for approximately 1 min 30 for 30°C, 2 min for 40°C and 3 min for 50°C. These figures may vary according to the material and thickness of the tokkuri, so use a kitchen thermometer to check the temperature. To avoid overflowing, take care not to fill the tokkuri completely, as sake expands when heated.

Sake heated in tokkuri in a double boiler

Microwave : it is also possible to heat a tokkuri filled with sake in the microwave. It's a good idea to carry out preliminary tests with the same volume of water to determine the optimum time. Note that sake heats up faster than water.

Professionals, meanwhile, are equipped with sake-heating machines. You may have seen them at the corner of a bar or behind a counter.

Professional sake boiling machines

They can be electric, in the form of dispensers on which a magnum bottle is placed, or more traditional, in the form of a bain-marie in which utensils called "tampo", made of aluminum or pewter, are placed, or even tokkuri directly.

What accessories are needed for tasting ?

Choko are ideal containers, as their wide necks allow vapors to dissipate. In fact, it's not advisable to smell the sake as you would in a traditional tasting session, as the sensation of alcohol can be disturbing in the case of heated sake.

Sake can also be served in a Hirezake, a ceramic cup with a lid. Here's a specialty from Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi: a glass of hot sake with a grilled fugu (or sea bream...) fin in it. Now widespread throughout Japan, it's a delicacy that lends a pleasantly smoky note to sake (put it on your list of things to try, if you haven't already).


Sake served in a Hirezake with grilled fugu fin

The "fugu Hirezake" consists of placing a grilled fugu (or sea bream) fin in hot sake.


5 SAKES TO ENJOY HOT

Here's our selection of five sakes to enjoy hot, and a few suggestions for accessories to go with them !

Tentaka Umakara


Futsuushu sake bottle with 2 glasses for enjoying hot sake

Once heated, the perception of umami becomes more pronounced, the sake will become rounder while revealing a superb acidity, making it a perfect match for rich dishes such as boeuf bourguignon or sukiyaki.

Tip : Heat to 55° and cool to 40°.
(Accessory : Fugu Hirezake)

Suehiro Yamahai Junmai


green sake bottle with black accessories for heating sake

Heating will emphasize the dryness of this Junmai. Ideal for simple dishes, as well as more complex ones. With raclette, for example, or oden soaked in soy or dashi sauce.

Recommended temperature : 45°C.
(Accessories : Tetsusabi Tokkuri et choko)

Kameman Tokubetsu Honjozo


Blue sake bottle with white sake heating accessories with blue stripes

At 50°C, the cereal and fruity notes of banana and grape assert their presence. An excellent accompaniment to Izakaya-style dishes (gyoza or yakitori), but also to more common dishes such as ratatouille or gratin.
(Accessories : Janome Tokkuri et choko)

Yamasan Masamune Yamahai


Sake bottle with black accessories for heating and serving sake

As it warms, Yamasan Masamune's acidity becomes more pronounced, enabling it to pair perfectly with the cheeses, creating a beautiful fusion on the palate! An original experience, Japanese sake and Savoyard fondue, including in its preparation.
(Accessories : Kanzake set)

Amabuki Kimoto Junmai Daiginjo


Black sake bottle with white accessories for heating and serving sake

Here's a special case with one of the rare Daiginjo that's worth heating. But not too much, at 40°C maximum, to avoid the aromas disappearing. With its fruity, lactic, spicy and mentholated notes, this sake is ideal with nitsuke fish (cooked in soy sauce) or duck breast.
(Accessories : Kihara Hakemaki sake set)

We hope these recommendations have inspired you to discover sake from a different angle. Please do not hesitate to contact us for any further information.