Jessica Furui on Warm Sake

10 years ago, Jessica Furui tasted sake for the first time. She didn't know then all the inspiration it would bring. Currently, sake sommelier and buyer of Ozumo Contemporary Japanese Cuisine, she spends several nights a week "finding something that her guests don't know they want." Lucky to travel to Japan several times, she is humbled to share her experiences with those interested. A bonsai enthusiast, she enjoys a nice glass of sake while tending to her many "babies." Jessica and her husband look forward to moving back to Japan to grow vegetables, rice, and make sake in Nagano. She chronicles her love of sake and life at You can also visit her at Corkage Sake and Wine Store generally on Thursdays.

Warm Sake, Warm Heart

It was during the cold winter months in Truckee, California, that I tasted sake for the first time. As the sky dropped quarter-sized snowflakes gently upon the world below, my coworkers and I sipped "the hot stuff." Ah yes, hot sake. When you just want a warm little belly (or heart) and smile on your face, the hot stuff will definitely do the trick. It just so happened that I met my true love, cold sake, at the same sushi bar, Soul Sushi and BBQ (maybe some you have been there?). It was the best place to work, and the owner Gary Flood, who sadly passed away in August, inspires me to this very day.

Over time, several trips to Japan, reading various publications, and of course personal experience, I feel compelled to say these words: it is ok to warm "good" sake. With that being said, like most stories in the world of sake, there are a few caveats. One of which is this: if you are drinking a beautifully light and fruity ginjo or daiginjo, you should reconsider. As the sake warms, it's aromatic subtleties (the ones the brewers work so hard to coax out of the fermenting mash) float way into the ether. On the other hand, a rich, round sake with profound flavor profiles like most junmai, and especially yamahai or kimoto brews, are in fact quite amazing. Warming allows these brews to relax and express themselves in a most delicious way.
And of course there are more exceptions. Just because it is a daiginjo or ginjo doesn't mean that it's fruity. There is a multitude of ways that sake can be made. And often, it is simply a brewer's philosophy that you're drinking. Some daiginjo can be full bodied with savory aromas such as buttered toast, cedar, shiitake mushrooms, ripe persimmon, or grilled pineapple. Sakes will most definitely taste different at different temperatures. Experiment with your favorite brew and find your optimal preference.
Here are a few specific warming temperatures, along with some of their rather poetic descriptions:

Hinatakan: about 86°F, as you lay in the park with the sun warming your face.

Hitohadakan: around 95°F, this word translates literally "person's skin," but refers to sake heated to body temperature.

Nurukan: about 104°F; lukewarm.

Astsukan: heated above and about 122°F.

Tobikirikan: around 134°F: "fly-away-for-good-hot."

For many years in Japan it was typical to find a person employed at an izakaya (sake pub) for the sole reason to heat sake to the desired temperature for their patrons. Unfortunately this position has somewhat fallen out of fashion and isn't seen much anymore.
Warming sake does not have to be difficult. The best way to do it: heat a pot of water on the stove. Fill a tokkuri or carafe with sake and place in the hot water. It will warm it gently, without burning off all the good stuff. Should you warm it in the microwave?  Eh…it doesn't really matter, except that you are microwaving it, but seriously, just don't spend decent money on something you are going to heat into oblivion.

So what's with the "hot stuff" you find at the local sushi joint? Most often the hot sake on their menu is something that comes from a box. This box sits atop an exquisitely engineered machine that heats it and fills the tokkuri perfectly. Often this sake is a low grade of sake that wouldn't taste very good should you drink it cold. Restaurants that actually give you a choice of warm sake are all right in my book. If they give you a temperature option, even better, but I haven't been able to find a place like this.

Just remember that the weather offers its serving suggestions to you. Listen to your heart, it may just want to get a little warmer this season.

Some of my favorites warmed and a few pairing suggestions:

Kokuryu Ryu
-- Nurukan with roasted savory duck.

Koshi no Kanbai Chotokusen
-- I like this hitohadakan just by itself.

Masumi Nanago
-- An incredible yamahai daiginjo warmed nurukan with anything braised.

Tamanohikari Yamahai Ginjo
-- Atsukan with steamed clams or mussels in butter and sake.

Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo
-- Again, this "Black Dragon" is great gently warmed all by itself.

Nishida Denshu
-- Roasted meats and veggies.

Tedorigawa Yamahai Junmai
-- Atsukan with seafood stew.

Daishichi Kimoto Classic
-- Atsukan with Japanese curry.