BOOZE, Japan, Ronin, Sunday's Grocery, Yardbird • Oct 18, 2017
There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding sake, including the age-old question about temperature. Why is it that sake is sometimes served warm and at other times served chilled? What should one request when ordering sake at a restaurant? In this post, we discuss the history behind warm vs. chilled sake and why temperature matters!
Traditionally, sake was always served warm because its production process wasn’t nearly as refined as it is today. Before the 20th century, sake was brewed in cedar tanks and stored in cedar casks. Because of this, most sake at that time had strong, woody flavors. Drinking this sake warm was much more palatable as the heat mellowed out any harsh flavors. As time went on, technology advanced and in the early 20th century, the cedar tanks were replaced with stainless steel and the cedar casks were replaced with glass bottles. Over the last few decades, more precise methods for sake brewing have developed and the spirit has truly transformed.
Naturally, these developments have affected the way sake has been served throughout the years. The common misconception is that cheap sake is served warm and that premium sake should be served chilled, but it’s not so black and white. For example, it doesn’t make sense to serve a delicate and floral sake warm as the heat will destroy the subtleties of the flavor profile. On the other hand, taruzake (an artisanal sake that harkens back to sake’s origins) is purposely aged in cedar and meant to be served warm. This is a stylistic choice made by the brewer and has nothing to do whether or not the sake is “good” or “bad”.
Generally speaking, it’s ideal to serve the most delicate and premium sake (junmai daiginjo) slightly chilled. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s best to serve table sake (futsushu) warm. The sake in between depends on several factors – the style, the season, and most importantly, personal preference. When ordering sake at a restaurant or bar, it’s always a good idea to ask the server or sommelier for their recommendations, but the first step is to figure out what type of sake you like best!