Sake: Some Like it Hot, Some Like it Cold

The question often arises: How do you know which sake to drink hot and which sake to drink cold? With most Asian restaurants serving sake piping hot out of sake-warming machines, and others insisting sake be drunk chilled, it may be confusing.

The quick answer is this: in general, good sake is served cold. Sake that is served warm is served that way for two reasons: one, that is the older, traditional way to serve sake and two, heating masks inferiority.

But wait! It is not all that simple! The above is just an executive summary. There is so much more that needs to be said. Most importantly, that there is plenty of good sake, premium sake even, that is quite good when gently warmed. Plenty indeed! It is too easy, in this era of chilled premium ginjo sake, to overlook how fine warm sake can be, especially in the winter.

Which brings us back to the first question: How do you know whether to warm a sake or to serve it chilled? Fortunately or unfortunately, it is purely an empirical exercise a matter of personal preference.

Many sakagura (sake breweries) will tell you that a particular sake of theirs is especially tasty when warmed. Some list that information right on the label. Also, tasting a wide variety of sake at a wide variety of temperatures will soon make it clear which flavor profiles appeal to you at warm temperatures and which do not.

First, a little history and background as to why the whole issue has come about. Long ago, almost all sake was served warm, or even hot. Sake back then was much rougher, and heating it smoothed out the rough edges, making it more palatable. Even sake that was considered decent back then would suffer little from being warmed.

Things that were done “ong ago” often become tradition. And so, serving sake warmed became tradition. Even today, in Japan as elsewhere, most sake is consumed warm or hot, especially in traditional little pubs and restaurants.

But there is more than just tradition to the why of it. Heating, as mentioned before, masks off-flavors and smells. The curiosity of drinking a hot alcoholic beverage replaces the Epicurean approach. It can be fun to slam down piping hot sake poured from tokkuri (flagons) into those cutesy little cups (o-choko). How the sake at hand tastes or smells becomes a secondary issue, and all too often counting how many you’ve had becomes tertiary at best. No doubt, this has its appeal.

More to come
In an upcoming post discover my results of heating sake with a flame and with the microwave  – some very interesting results, indeed! I’ll also share some of the new advancements in heating and cooling sake. For more information on sake, check out the Sake Notebook, a 14-page guide that includes a list of 250 recommendable sake, and provides enough education on all things sake to fuel your study, appreciation and enjoyment of sake for years to come.  To  more than 90 other varieties of Sake, join me at the Sake Professional Course in Portland, Oregon on November 7, 8 and 9. For more information, click here, or email us at

Tell us what do you prefer – do you like it hot, cold or both?  You can share your comments below!

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