I remember the first time I tasted sake, and sushi for that matter, back when I was in college in the 80s. A friend who studied in Japan took me to a sushi bar on Irving Place in Manhattan, where he introduced me to raw fish on rice and sake served as hot as a steaming mug of coffee. I didn't know much about sake at the time; I thought it was some generic tipple -- and in fact, most sake available at the time was indeed low-caliber. Fast forward a decade or so, as premium, small-batch sakes began filtering in from Japan, amazing brews as deep and sublime as the finest wines. I was hooked. But now, I was told, to savor these delicate brews refrigerator-cold. So hot sake was bad sake, and cold sake was good sake? Well, not so fast.
I thought about my initial encounters with sake, and attendant questions, as I listened to a fascinating and immensely useful seminar last week at the Japanese Culinary Center, called "Sake Temperatures: How Hot Is Too Hot?" I was thrilled that Mr. Nori Kanai, the founder of Mutual Trading (which runs the center) gave the presentation. First, a little bit about Mr. Kanai, a spry 87-year-old: (a) he's a legend, (b) he's the man responsible for introducing sushi to the West and (c) he was just anointed a "Living National Treasure" by Emperor Akihito for his life's work promoting Japanese food culture around the world. Wow. (By the way, Mr. Kanai credits his vitality to eating soba for breakfast every morning. Duly noted.)
Mr. Kanai explained that sake was originally consumed for religious purposes. By the Edo Period (the 1600s), it became a popular beverage that was enjoyed... drum roll... warm. Warm like the temperature of your body. Not too hot. And not too cold, which was considered bad manners. Warm sake is called kanzake in Japanese. When Mr. Kanai arrived to America in the mid-50s, the sake that was generally available, the cheapo stuff, was typically imbibed piping hot. That surprised him. Perhaps "warm" got translated into "hot," because, hey, if warm was good, wouldn't hotter be better? Somehow hot sake became the norm across America, like at the joint on Irving Place where I first tried it.
So what's the right temperature to drink sake? As Mr. Kanai explained, it really depends on the particular kind of sake (now that we have such a bounty of incredible sake available). He noted eight temperature ranges, but as a rule of thumb, he said you can't go wrong with drinking any sake at room temperature. Here are a couple of other general guidelines:
Fragrant sake like gingo or daigingo: Drink chilled, around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but don't drink it cold, which will kill the delicate aroma and taste (like drinking white wine too cold).
Unpasteurized sake (namazake): Drink it a little cooler, in the 41-50 degree range, to bring out its crisp, fresh taste.
Rich sake like junmai or honjozo: These are perfect served room temperature or warm -- kan. What is warm? Body temperature (98 degrees) up to 110 degrees. (Perfect with hot pot, by the way.)
I watched the gang at the Japan Culinary Center heat sake, which was also instructive: They heated it in a water bath to get it to the right temperature. Now, of course, we didn't just talk about sake, but tasted as well. Here Rick Smith of Sakaya weighed in with a few favorite selections: Suigei Tokubetsu Junmai, which is fantastic warm, Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo, best served chilled, and Kikusui Hanjozo, enjoyed chilled or at room temperature.
The upshot is that you can enjoy great high-quality sake warm, room temperature or chilled. But not too hot, or not too cold. And now that it's miserably cold in New York City, I'm ordering a kanzake junmai the next time I dine Japanese. That'll do the trick.
(Thank you for your incredible lecture, Mr. Kanai.)