By Jonathan Yaffe
Article from Issue Five
In the Japanese world of alcoholic tradition, there is very little room for supplementing historical continuity with modern novelties. The imbibing of sake, for example, is surrounded by certain procedural expectations: never pour your own cup; sip – don’t shoot – out of a small glass or ceramic cup; kanpai before drinking; and drink at the correct temperature.
One cannot imagine the reaction of the ojiisan (Japanese grandfathers) when a group of fresh-off-the-boat American fraternity brothers on vacation proposed teaching the octogenarian regulars in the tiny bar in Fukuoka how to properly do a sake bomb.
Even coming from San Francisco, one of the few, true worldly cities, where most people know what pisco and mezcal are, I didn’t even know the difference between a nigorizake (濁り酒 - thick white unfiltered sake) and a junmaishu (純米酒 sake made from rice, water and kōji, with no additives). I also thought that all sake was meant to be served warm; this is precisely the biggest obstacle keeping Japanese sakes from becoming truly appreciated in the states.
Firstly, even the word sake is a misnomer and anyone who goes to Japan will feel lost in translation while ordering sake (酒), which is Japanese for alcohol. Instead, get used to ordering nihonshu (日本酒, literally Japanese sake). Secondly, while sake is often described as rice wine, in reality the brewing (rather than just fermenting) process is closer to that of beer. Although, during sake’s brewing process, the starch turns to sugar at the same time that the sugar ferments to alcohol, rather than in two separate steps. By keeping the temperature low, fermentation is slowed down to between two and six weeks.
Hot or Cold
While in many restaurants, sakes have a standard temperature, some allow patrons to specify the temperature they’d like to drink at. I cringed last week as I watched a British tourist in one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo order a superb daiginjo (nihonshu made by milling away at least 50% of the rice grain), a premium sake from Niigata. He ordered it hot. I almost cried. It was the middle of the summer. As if he were just sent into the restaurant only to provoke me, he downed the entire glass in one shot. I shuddered.
Centuries ago, sake was made and stored in cedar casks, giving sake a distinct woody flavor. That’s probably the origin of warming sake. It’s a way to drink the unrefined beverage and still mask the woodiness and impurities. As a general rule of thumb, these days, sake is brewed to convey subtle tastes rather than the earthy boldness of centuries ago. Thus, most high-grade sakes are best slightly cooled (hiyazake or reishu). Ginjo sakes (high-grade premium sakes in which at least the outer fifty per cent of the rice kernel is milled away) best show their complex tastes chilled to about 50°F, often referred to as hana-hie (flower cool). Any colder and one really doesn’t taste the true essence of the drink. Junmai, which is often more earthy and full-bodied, with a slightly higher acidity, is often served at room temperature or just cooled slightly.
Do Unto Your Sake As You Would Do Unto Your Wine
You wouldn’t throw a bottle of rare Château Margaux into a warm saucepan with cloves and cinnamon. Please treat your sake just as well. Because heating sake often covers its true flavor, the sake we get served hot, or atsu-kan, is normally lower-grade nihonshu, in which not very much of the outer husks of the rice kernels are milled away. Like mulled wine in the West, hot sake is a beautiful thing on frigid winter nights, though it should be reserved for warming cold fingers rather than tasting brewed genius. If you really must warm your sake, make sure to warm it by first pouring it into a small decanter called a tokkuri and then placing the tokkuri in a bowl of hot water, not heating it beyond about 130°F, at which point it loses most of its intended flavor. Warm sake is best at about 115°F. Japanese companies are even experimenting with using RFID tags which continuously report the temperature of sake bottles wirelessly back to the sake manufacturers; this way customers can receive a report proving that the sake was never damaged by heat during transport or storage.
The Times, They Are a-Changing
These days, in a Japan in which futuristic innovation competes with tradition, there are bars that sell individual cups of “frozen sake” which are kept in the freezer and then shaken vigorously to create a sake slushy. In the winter, convenience stores sell self-heating cans of sake in which you simply press a button on the bottom, invert the can a few times, and enjoy your steaming nihonshu.
Still though, tradition is not lost. Many restaurants still have staff that are sake experts, who take great care to serve each nihonshu at the temperature that perfectly brings out its true flavor. Even if the drone next to you is doing sake bombs with a perfectly aged ginjo, do your part to appreciate the nuance, and order your sake hiya (chilled).