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What We Miss When We Write Off Warm Sake

For Americans, the phrase “hot sake” may conjure all sorts of — often visceral — reactions. In the case of my social media community, these included: “inexpensive, lower quality,” “cheap,” and “acrid,” plus several, more specific associations: downing sake bombs (in at least one instance “with a fake ID”), the catchall of “college,” the first time they tried sushi, and in one cryptic case, the year 1988.

The associations people shared weren’t just overwhelmingly negative, but frozen deep in the past, as if their owners never deemed it necessary to recast warm sake in another light besides that of the cheapest futsushu, a.k.a. regular sake, heated to cover its many flaws. Yet many would argue that it’s well past time Americans re-examined this long-maligned category, and opened ourselves up to the flavor and texture nuances we can unlock when we warm up the right style of quality rice wine. It might require owning up to certain misconceptions we human beings hang onto however small, and challenging them.

*Indeed, in homes, restaurants and bars across Japan, the temperature at which someone sips on sake shifts constantly, gently recalibrating (in 5- degree Celsius increments, if you must know) based on how floral and fruity or dry and robust the brew, the time of year, or simply the temperature outside on a given day. In colder months, traditional izakayas assign someone on staff to be the official sake warmer, or okanban.

“The idea that hot sake is automatically low-quality sake is, unfortunately, what a lot of Americans have been told and just believe because it’s what they were told,” says mixologist Julia Momosé, who owns Japanese bar and restaurant Kumiko in Chicago. “At its heart, Japanese drinking is about drinking with the seasons and ties into drinking what feels good in the moment — and more often than not, drinking something warm and comforting is so much better than cold.”

Hot Equals Cheap?

It’s not totally our fault that we whole-cloth associate “hot” with “cheap” when it comes to sake. Many of us experienced it firsthand, including the acute hangover that followed. Sommelier Danielle Norris’s first encounter with hot futushu occurred in 2009, not as a college student in a strip-mall sushi joint but rather working in a high-end, high-volume sushi restaurant in Austin, Texas — which, in fact, offered ​​a bespoke sake list, always served chilled.

The restaurant also stocked industrial-grade sake by the oversized cardboard box, which was hooked up to a warmer and “poured into textured ceramic carafes to, you know, be slammed,” says Norris, who’s now a sales rep for Cream Wine Co. The hot, bulk-boxed sake seemed to suit the clientele, which consisted mostly of “drunk people with a lot of money.” They’d down it by the carafe on chilly days, in shooters or sake bombs — a.k.a. as fast vehicles to drunkenness rather than something to be savored, pondered, and appreciated. “At that point, if you’re going to shoot it, does it really matter what it tastes like?” Norris says.

There are certain rules of thumb when it comes to warming sake that set its drinker up for success, though the most important is the quality of the product.

“If you don’t start with good, well-crafted sake, no amount of heating, or chilling for that matter, is going to make it delicious,” says Tim Sullivan, director of education at the Sake Studies Center at Brooklyn Kamura.

Junmai ginjo that’s nutty, dry, and savory, sings when heated and even at room temperature, Momosé says, whereas floral, delicate junmai daiginjo is generally best served chilled. Sharp or overtly dry sake styles tend to soften and become more velvety as they warm up.

“I call it magic water. It’s rich, warming and delicious. A remarkable transformation.”

Most experts agree the heating threshold caps at around 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), or atsu-kan on a sake temperature gauge. As a general rule, junmaishu, or pure rice sake, should be warmed up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) or jo-kan. Junmai ginjoshu generally expresses best closer to body temperature at 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), or nuru-kan. That’s partly why the heating process is so precise, requiring gentle heating methods like immersion circulation or a hot water bath. Plus, as Norris points out, “heat damages anything, especially something as delicate as sake. The more you heat it up, the more its tender, nuanced qualities dissipate.”

Why We Hold Fast to Old Myths

But how come many who’ve become indoctrinated into the breadth and depth of quality sake never bother revisiting it warm? Sullivan says there’s lingering embarrassment baked in, as if it exposes a preference for something lesser.

“When I bring up the topic — and I always do — sometimes I have students who sheepishly raise their hands, like, ‘I have to admit I really love warm sake,’” he says. “So I try to get that misconception myth out of the way early.”

He likes to serve side-by-side hot and cold comparisons of Hakkaisan’s tokubetsu honjozo, a top-tier sake with brewer’s alcohol added that’s well-suited to heating, to illustrate the transcendent power of warming premium sake for his students. When chilled, it’s crisp, refreshing, almost water-like — “I call it magic water,” says Sullivan, who’s also a brand ambassador for Hakkaisan Sake. Once heated, the koji and rice aromas come forward, and the texture becomes velvety. “It’s rich, warming and delicious. A remarkable transformation.”

But old prejudices die hard in human beings, and with good psychological reason. Owing to a phenomenon called confirmation bias, we tend to pay closer attention to evidence and arguments that support our own strongly held conclusions, simply discounting any contradictory evidence. In this instance, if we heard someone say “hot sake equals cheap sake,” most of us could easily conjure a memory to support this. Indeed, some cognitive researchers also claim that the brain has to consume extra energy in the process of changing or rearranging beliefs, meaning that neurological laziness (a.k.a. the tendency to conserve glucose and oxygen) predisposes our brains to maintain the configurations they already have.

What do we lose when we write off MSG? For one thing, we miss out on an opportunity to heighten the perception of savoriness in our food, something other cultures have long explored and delighted in.

This may help explain certain stubborn misperceptions not just about sake but another long and unfairly vilified ingredient: monosodium glutamate, a.k.a. MSG, which essentially amounts to table salt (sodium) and an amino acid (glutamic acid), which naturally occurs in mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, asparagus, and soy sauce. Its negative reputation dates back to the 1960s, when a doctor wrote to a scientific journal wondering if MSG was the reason he experienced allergy-like symptoms when he ate Chinese food. The claim, distastefully dubbed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” quickly snowballed, with MSG being blamed for everything from headaches to infantile obesity. In the decades since, a heap of scientific evidence to the contrary has surfaced, yet still the myth persists. As of 2019, some 42 percent of Americans still said they believe MSG is bad for them.

What’s to blame for this number remaining so high? Racism, confirmation bias, or perhaps just neurological laziness? And what do we lose when we write off MSG? For one thing, we miss out on an opportunity to heighten the perception of savoriness in our food, something other cultures have long explored and delighted in. Interestingly though, most of us have also already experienced it whenever we croon “Mmmm!” after a bite of cheesy truffle pasta, kimchi stew, a rosy slice of prosciutto or — that’s right — a Dorito.

What do we miss when we write off warm sake? There will likely always be restaurants that zap cheap futushu to mask its flaws, furthering the myth that all hot sake is bad. But there’s a whole world of warming comfort and maybe even sensory transcendency awaiting those willing to dip a toe back in.

Momosé points to one nihonshu, or Japanese sake, to illustrate this: an open vat-fermented yamahai junmai ginjo from Hayashi Honten. When poured chilled, it drinks easygoing and mildly funky, with delicate notes of macadamia, white chocolate, and sometimes mushroom. When gently heated, its savory nuttiness is heightened and rounder and the mushroom comes out more.

“But surely it’s a faux pas to request such a refined sake be warmed!” we wonder, letting the old bias creep in. That’s why folks like the Sake Studies Center and Kumiko are normalizing the practice.

“It’s interesting to see that people are kind of surprised when we say we can absolutely warm any sake for them — they’re even like, ‘Whoa, no, I just want whatever,’” Momosé says, noting the perception that heating is unusual or requires extra effort. “I’m excited for people to understand and embrace how simple it is and that they can experiment to find the right sake for them to drink warm as well.”

All they have to do is open a bottle, warm a hot water bath, and nestle a carafe of sake inside. Transcendence can happen in as little as 5 degrees C.

The article What We Miss When We Write Off Warm Sake appeared first on VinePair.

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