Ah, sake… it’s a love it or hate it kind of drink, but more and more premium sake is becoming a popular choice. If you’ve never had good sake, it’s worth a try. Truly good sake will make you forget that overly warmed stuff you tried back in college.
Traditionally, sake has been served warm – that doesn’t mean really hot. Today, better brewing techniques have given rise to higher quality sake that can be served lightly chilled. The temperature at which you serve and enjoy your sake is ultimately determined by two things – does the sake taste better when chilled, at room temperature or warmed? And what is your personal preference? Too hot and the delicate balance of flavors and aromas is destroyed; too cold and the flavors are masked completely.
A good rule of thumb is to serve Ginjo (or premium) sake very slightly chilled and Junmai, which has a slightly fuller profile and higher acidity is best at room temperature. Warming sake to just above body temperature, between 100 and 104 degrees, is ideal for older sake and lower-quality sakes. It’s also a terrific option in winter. Unpasteurized (namazake) and unfiltered (nigori) sake should be served well chilled.
Sake is served from a sake set. The ceramic or clay flask called a tokkuri, may be wrapped in a towel to prevent drips. To adjust the temperature, pour sake into the tokkuri and then place the flask in a pan of hot water, or ice cubes. One great way to sample sake is to start with it chilled and then let it slowly warm up, tasting all the while. You’ll quickly find the ideal temperature for you and that particular sake.
Each person is given a cup, or ochoko, and the host pours for all guests, but not themselves. One of the guests should take the responsibility of pouring for the host. Enjoying sake with friends is a mini ritual of social bonding. The person pouring holds the tokkuri with one hand on the flask palm down, and the other hand supporting the pouring hand. The other person holds their ochoko resting in one palm and supported by the other hand. There are far more formal traditions and rituals around sake drinking, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying sake with friends. At casual parties among friends, the pouring ritual is usually abandoned after the first round or two and each person pours for themselves (called tejaku).
Sake does not age like wine, and it is best kept in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark room. It is best when consumed within a few months after purchase. Opened sake does not keep well as it beings to oxidize very quickly. Though you can refrigerate opened sake for a day or two, it’s best to consume the entire bottle at one time – all the more reason to invite friends over for a sake party.
Sake goes well with a variety of foods, and just like wine, different sake will work with different dishes, so pick what you would like and don’t limit yourself to Japanese food.
Now you’re ready to pour your guests a sake, just remember to toast “kampai” – which is the equivalent of “cheers!”