Like wine, sake presents a different personality at different temperatures, allowing for distinctions between chilled, room temperature, and warm sake. The warm variety has been enjoyed by nobles since the Heian era, and made its way to the Japanese everyman during the Edo (Genroku) period. Eventually it crossed to the ocean to the US, and on a crisp fall night, there’s nothing quite like ramen and warm sake. But have you ever wondered how they get it so perfectly warm?
Unfortunately, the answer is somewhat disenchanting. The Taiji is an industrial strength sake warmer that restaurants use when going through high volumes of sake. It usually sits somewhere near the kitchen– a colleague actually spotted one on his way to the restaurant bathroom, and wondered what on earth the R2-D2-resembling machine was.
Apparently, the machine works by heating boxes of sake to 110-150ºC. It does so by leading the sake through a series of glass tubes surrounded by heated water to warm it. According to the product’s website, this allows the sake to be heated “evenly and gently, without adversely impacting the flavor or clarity of the sake.”
Somehow, though, imagining the liquid flowing through a series of tubes before hitting your tongue seems a little…suspect.
In addition to its preparation (no one really wants to know how sausage is made, do they?), the quality of hot sake is generally lower than that of sake served at regular temperature, as the heating masks flavor; specifically, it hides bitterness and enhances sweetness. This is most often the case when it comes to futsushu, which is the cheapest sake. Premium sake, on the other hand, with its more delicate character and subtle aroma, is not generally recommended for heating to high temperatures.
All that said, there are in fact some sakes that are of good quality and should be enjoyed warm, like those labeled junmai, which is a pure sake with no additional starches or alcohol. So don’t cast off warm sake entirely, just make sure you order right!