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Sake: Hot or Cold?

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Among sake connoisseurs, aficionados, and enthusiasts there is a long raging debate as to what temperature this refreshing libation should be served. But, just as there are myriad experts on the subject, so too are the opinions regarding whether sake is best when served hot or cold.

First, a note of clarification – when speaking of “hot” or “cold,” the reference is not to piping hot or near frozen but to a spectrum in relation to room temperature. Cold sake should be served in the same temperature range as white wine; hot sake should not be warmer than 115°F (but, as with many things, there are probably exceptions).

Origins of hot sake

For centuries, sake was traditionally served warm. However, this practice was more a result of the manufacturing process rather than being a tradition or a ritual. Because early sakes absorbed the aromas and flavors of the wood used in the cedar storage vats, making them somewhat raw and rough, heating was a way to mask or eliminate them. And, while cheaper sakes still benefit from this process, advances in equipment, improved rice strains, and refinements in brewing have reduced the need for warming. In fact, many higher end sakes can be damaged if served at too high (or too cold) a temperature.

Determining sake’s ideal serving temperature

The most effective method to determine the ideal temperature for your sake is to experiment with different temperatures – and different sakes. While this may take a little time, the rewards are worth the effort. If you are not sure if the sake you are contemplating should be warmed or chilled to begin with, check the label – most bottles provide a general guideline. Price can also be a determining factor as less expensive sakes all benefit from heating to some degree.

For any given bottle of sake, start by taking a small sip while it is at room temperature and note its characteristics. If you are interested in warm sake, place the “tokkuri,” or serving container you will be using in a bowl or pot of hot water (no warmer than 200°F) and let the beverage gradually warm. At various points, test the flavor, again noting its characteristics. The ideal temperature is just below that in which no further changes take place.

For chilled sake, the ideal temperature range is between 41° and 48°F (although during the middle of summer, sake chilled below 41°F may offer a refreshing change of pace). The process for determining the ideal is the same as for hot sake – taking small sips until no changes in fragrance and taste can be detected.

Finding the ideal temperature for serving sake may be one of those rare instances when both the journey and the destination are equally enjoyable. So relax, take your time, experiment, and explore the world of sake and revel in its offerings. Kanpai!

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