A Guide for Drinking Hot Sake in Japan’s Cold Winters

Sake is the Japanese word for rice wine. It comes in a host of flavors and various techniques to deliver an experience on the taste buds incomparable to any other spirit in the world. What’s great about it is that you don’t need to travel all the way to Japan to enjoy it.

You can sip on sake when at home or when dining at an authentic Japanese restaurant. So, if you’re new to the world of sake, it’s important to understand the nuances of drinking it.

Because, like most things Japanese, there’s poetry and artistry involved in its preparation.

History of Heating Sake

Heating sake as a winter drink dates back to the eighth century AD, which is during Japan’s Jōmon Period. That means it’s a practice that’s nearly 2,000 years old. At least, that’s the first recorded instance of it by the poet Yamanou no Okura.

But, in the early 1990s, Japanese culture received a boost of popularity in the United States and Americans began to explore the wonders of warmed sake. Today, there’s great demand for sake with a developing connoisseur culture.

Sake Temperature Classifications

The act of warming sake, called Okan Suru, is an art in and of itself. The general method of serving sake is Kanzake. Heating enhances sake’s complex flavors, which give a full-bodied and deep taste.

However, the temperature of sake will depend on the preferences of the person drinking it.

But, in true Japanese fashion, there isn’t simply cold or hot sake. There are varying degrees that have rules. As a result, the Japanese have devised 11 distinct classifications for the temperature of sake. Seven of these are at room temperature or hotter.

This means only four are served cold. The following chart indicates the varying degrees of heat (or cold) that sake can be.

ClassificationTemperatureBottle TempAroma
Tobikirikan (“Flying Out” or Piping Hot)131°F to 133°F (or 55°C to 56°C)Super scalding hot, you will need hand protectionSharp and dry
Atsukan (Hot)122°F (or 50°C)Bottle will be hot and steam will pour outCrisp, dry and sharp
Jyohkan (High Heat)113°F (or 45°C)Definitely warm with steam coming out as you pourIntense
Nurukan (Lukewarm)104°F (or 40°C)Not quite hot but definitely warmStrong
Hitohadakan (Body Temperature)95°F (or 35°C)Warm but not hotSpreading flavor, pleasant aroma of rice and koji
Hinatakan (Sunny Spring Day or Sunbathed)86°F (or 30°C)Slightly warm, but barely noticeableSubtle
Hiya or Juon (Room Temperature)68°F (or 20°C)Should be room temperatureSubtle
Ryo-Bie (Slightly Cold)59°F (or 15°C)Fairly ColdSubtle
Hana-Bie (Fridge Cold)50°F (or 10°C)Quite cold, but not freezingSubtle
Yuki-Bie (Snow Cold)41°F (or 5°C)Hand freezes upon touchingSubtle
Mizore-Zake (Frozen or Slushy Sake)32°F to 23°F (0°C to -5°C)Skin will stick to the bottleCool, subtle and refreshing

Drinking the Right Sake at the Best Temperature

You can warm any kind of sake. There’s not one sake better for heating than another. In fact, heating is ideal for cheaper and lower quality sakes.

This will mask some of the harsher flavors that sake can sometimes have. But, do not mistake warmed sake as being something equal to poor quality, this simply isn’t true.

Types of Sake

Super premium Daiginjo sake is best for warming. This is because rice grains milled down to 35% or less are best cold. However, Ginjo sakes also taste great warmed, bringing out the savory nuttiness.

There are Honjozo and Junmai varieties, which provide more body and smoothness when heated.

Aged sake, or Koshu, is delicious when heated since it enhances the flavor profile. Unpasteurized sake, or Nama, should undergo chilling so the fresh fruitiness of it comes through.

When to Chill or Heat Sake

But of course, this will largely depend on the flavors of the sake itself. If there aren’t many floral or fruity notes, you should drink it warm. When there are many rich savory flavors to a sake, warming it adds a texture that’s velvety with a beautiful, long finish.

As a basic rule of thumb, the hotter the sake, the drier it becomes. There’s also an increase in lactic and amino acids that bring out the rich savory flavors alongside the rice and koji aromas.

When it’s hot, the flavor is usually sharp and dry with a certain complexity.

While cold sake is delicious, too cold can destroy a sake’s lively flavor profile. You should chill the ones that have more flowers and fruits to its bouquet, which bring out the more delicate tastes.

How to Warm Sake

There are many ways you can heat sake. The most traditional way is with a copper pot filled with simmering water on a woodstove. However, there’s a thing called a Kansuke, which is a temperature-controlled hot tub specifically for sake.

But, it’s not uncommon to use a saucepan on a regular stove. Simply place a ceramic carafe, called a Tokkuri, filled with sake into the pot.

Traditional Tokkuri

Other people will use a Tanpo, or metal cup with a handle, spout, and lid, filled with sake and hang it over the side into the bath.

Both methods incorporate a thermometer to measure the temperature of the sake as it warms.

Occasionally izakayas and restaurants utilize a hot sake dispenser for quicker serving during wintertime. However, for at-home warming, a microwave will also work.

Warming Sake at Home

To warm sake at home is fairly simple. Fill a decanter about 90% full and cover the mouth with plastic wrap or other heat-resistant cover.

This will prevent the flavors and aroma from escaping. Fill a pot with water and place the decanter into the pot. It should sit in the middle of the decanter.

Once the water reaches the boiling point, remove the decanter from the water. Turn the heat off on the stove and let the boil calm down a bit. Replace the decanter into the hot water.

The trick is to not leave the decanter in warm water for too long. The longer it sits the more alcohol you will lose thru evaporation.

Remove the decanter from the saucepan when you notice the sake rising to the mouth of the decanter. Feel the bottom of the decanter and, if it’s relatively hot, it should be just about right.

Microwaving Sake

Because the microwave will heat the sake faster than on the stove, it’s not usually recommended. But, if you do it in progressive increments, it should be fine.

You will have to pay attention to both the top and bottom of the decanter, putting it in at 20 to 40 seconds at a time depending on the wattage of your microwave.

Allow 30 seconds to pass between each interval and before checking the temperature. Then, swirl the sake in the decanter after checking the temperature. You must be very careful so as not to lose the flavor and aroma as well as the alcohol content of the sake though. When in doubt, be safe and use the stove.

Sake Heating Methods

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.