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December 7, 2016

Kanzake - the season of warm sake

Years ago when I started making promotion for sake, the main "enemy" was the wrong image of the brew caused by the piping hot sake served in all too many restaurants, not only abroad, but also in Japan. For this hot sake, the cheapest kind of regular sake was used, the one with additions of sugar and flavorings, which after imbibing may cause a headache the next day - so a beverage not really successful in winning friends for sake. In Japan, I mostly used to meet this beverage at bonenkai (year end parties) when restaurants try to keep prices as low as possible and party goers drink as much as possible to steep the past year in forgetfulness... I have heard this stuff designated as "jet fuel" and that is a very apt evaluation!

[Sake warmer (yukanki) made from Shigaraki ware. Hot water is poured into the large pot, then the tokkuri is placed in it until the sake has the right temperature. In this way, you can warm your sake at the table!]

So in order to position quality sake as something radically different from this fuel-type sake, we mainly promoted sake as a beverage that had to be drunk cold, and that was right as we were often dealing with ginjo-type sake. Serving cool is after all the right way for (most) ginjos and daiginjos, nigori sake, shiboritate, sparkling sake, unpasteurized or half-pasteurized sake, and so on. But there is also sake which is delicious when drunk warm!

These are in the first place junmai sakes (junmai-shu); and also honjozo and regular sake (yes, there is also quite drinkable regular sake (although I prefer junmai-shu), as long as you check the label and stay away from those to which sugar and flavorings have been added!). And as a general rule, sakes made with the kimoto and yamahai methods are particularly suitable for drinking warm (sometimes even the ginjo's).

[Daishichi junmai kimoto "CLASSIC" is an excellent sake to drink warm]

But an important point here is: what is warm? As you can see from the fact that I on purpose use the more neutral term "warm" instead of "hot," many sakes - especially the better junmai sakes - should be drunk lukewarm, something between 40 and 45 degrees Celsius, so a comfortable temperature that lies just above body temperature. At this temperature sake gets a heart-warming roundness and friendliness. Sakes which cold or at room temperature may have seemed a bit "difficult" or "harsh," at this temperature open up and show a most amiable character.

So the term "hot sake" is not really very good and I propose we start using the more fitting Japanese term "kanzake." "Kan" 燗 itself already means "warmed sake" or "warming up sake;" "kan wo suru" means "to warm sake" and "kanzake" is the normal term for "warmed sake."

Another point is how to warm your sake. The best way by far is bain-marie: just put the tokkuri with the sake in a container with hot water (not boiling or on the fire) and use a kitchen thermometer to check the temperature of the sake inside.

Kanzake is also the time to use your tokkuri (earthenware or porcelain sake bottle) and choko (sake cups). These are very nice for kanzake, but not very suitable for cold sake (a ginjo or daiginjo should have more space to breath and develop its aroma, so here a glass like a wine glass is best; and I like to drink my junmai-shu when cold from earthenware or glass cups that are larger than the usual choko). Collecting such tokkuri and choko from different areas of Japan (which all have their own type of earthenware) is great fun, even more so when using them for your winter kanzake!