I've introduced the idea of warm sake several times in Sake Gumi. People still ask me, "Is warm sake bad? Do people warm sake to mask poor quality?" The short answer is a big fat, "No." Traditionally, sake is enjoyed warm, and that's how it entered the U.S. market – it is the way most people have enjoyed this beverage throughout its 5000 year history. It wasn't until the 1980s when the market was flooded with fruity and floral sakes that chilled sakes were as in vogue as En Vogue.
And for about two decades, anyone who was trying to be somebody drank cold, fruity sakes that would be approved by Patrick Bateman himself. It was a way for sake to be rebranded as a sophisticated beverage, instead of the rustic drink made in a tiny brewery located in the inaka (the sticks), that a Japanese version of Ron Swanson might enjoy.
Luckily, the dust has settled on both sides of the spectrum and by the time I lived in Japan from 2005 to 2010, people were indiscriminately enjoying sake at different temperatures – depending on the style of sake, season, and personal preference. Although there is a general assumption that fruity, floral ginjo sakes should be enjoyed chilled, while more full-bodied junmais should be enjoyed warm, personal preference should dictate how to enjoy sake. There are very few rules in sake drinking, contrary to what people may think. The culture of sake-drinking is raucous – think more Oktoberfest and less Wine Spectator.
For this month, I've picked out sakes that can be enjoyed from chilled to warm (with one exception). Both sakes in Level 1 (the Okunomatsu Ginjo and Shichiken Junmai Ginjo) as well as Everlasting Roots in Level 2 have multiple layers and aromas that reveal themselves at varied temperatures. I encourage you to try these from chilled to warm and choose your favorite.
There is only one bottle this month that I encourage you to drink cold – the Oze no Yukinoke Hiyaoroshi Junmai Daiginjo. Hiyaoroshi sakes are released in the fall, when things have cooled down, and literally means, "cold release." This is because the sakes are released when things have cooled down (after summer). Hiyaoroshi have not gone through the usual, second pasteurization to capture its freshness. And because it's cooled down in the fall, there is no fear of it going bad despite forgoing a second pasteurization. As a general rule of thumb, unpasteurized namas and hiyaoroshi should not be warmed up, so that you don't disturb the yeast and all the (good) bacteria in the sake.
My goal is to break down stereotypes about warm vs. cold sakes. Sake is unique in its ability to be served at varied temperatures, and although it may make things confusing, it's as simple as finding what temperature you like it best. Make your own rules.
LEVEL 1: Introductory Membership (Two 300ml bottles)
Okunomatsu Shuzo (Fukushima, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 60%, SMV: +4
This sake goes down easy. It’s like a refreshing tangerine with a dry and clear finish. Sip this sake chilled to highlight its soft and clean texture - it’s like drinking water from a cold stream. This ginjo is great warm because it won’t taste sticky or cloying. With a rise in temperature it remains clean and clear while spotlighting the dry ending. This sake is highly adaptable with food – try it with jellyfish or spiced lamb.
Shichiken Junmai Ginjo
Yamanashi Meijo Co., Ltd (Yamanashi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 57%, SMV: +4
Drink chilled to enjoy the aroma of fresh cut grass, fennel and a hint of honeydew melon. When sipped cold, it pairs best with bar bites like Castelvetrano olives, lightly fried fish or vegetables (yes, that includes fries). To enjoy the acidity and dryness of this sake, warm it up – you will notice a cleaner, smooth finish. Complement the dryness with a hearty dish like pork meatballs or shabu shabu.
LEVEL 2: Premium Membership (Two 720ml bottles)
Oze No Yukidoke Junmai Daiginjo Hiyaoroshi
Ryujin Shuzo (Gunma, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 50%, SMV: 0
I asked the head brewer, Horikoshi-san, “If this sake were an American actor, who would he equate it to and why?” His reply – Cameron Diaz or Matt Damon because this sake is “Complete in quality.” I encourage you to drink this sake chilled. The reason is two-fold: 1) it’s a hiyaoroshi, a fall release sake that skips one of two pasteurizations and 2) it’s a sweet daiginjo and heating the sake up may conceal its complex floral flavors. This sake is super limited! Sake Gumi members got the bulk of what arrived to California. SG Tip: don’t save this semi-dry sake for Thanksgiving since hiyaoroshi are best when fresh. This is a fall sake, so try it with fall foods like shiitake and kabocha.
Everlasting Roots Tokubetsu Junmai
Yamada Shoten Brewery (Gifu, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 55%, SMV: +4
If Ron Swanson were to drink a sake, this would be the bottle. It’s rustic, dry, and savory with hints of orange rinds and clove. Plus, it comes in a no-nonsense 900ml bottle (an old format bottle – which means Level 2 members get extra sake this month!). Try at room temperature to highlight the orange and spices and then try it warm to savor the smoky, nutty aromas.