Warm sake and the o-kan-ban

Watanabe shuzo (Hourai) staff party - cold night with all drinking hot sake

Once you get into nihonshu (sake) you appreciate the finer sakes, the junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. These are usually drunk chilled or at least cold. But in fact they have only been around about 40 years. Before that there was only junmai.

Now we won't get into the history right now. That's for another blog. But needless to say that before that sake was a very different animal. It was thinker, of higher acidity, sometimes a lot sweeter and often drunk warm.

Japan is a cold country at times. It snows frequently especially in the northern provinces. In days of old at your local 'pub' there was a man who's job was called an 'O-kan-ban' and it was his job to warm the sake. Whilst you and your friends would relax around the charcoal fired pit he would be in the corner with his cauldron of hot water and armed with an assortment of tokkuri (sake pots) he would set about heating sake to different temperatures according to the weather, the particular likes of the residents who were locals, and according to the stage of ordering.

For example if a gent had just come in from the freezing cold he wouldn't serve him immediately a hot sake (atsukan) as he had not acclimatised to the warm environment yet. It would seem too hot. No, that hot sake would be for the next drink.

Koji room woode

Hot sake = bad sake?

Yes and no. By far in the west our first introduction to sake has been that of a cheap 'futsushu' which invariably came out of an 18 litre cardboard cask hidden under the bench when we innocently ordered a 'pot of the house sake, warm'. This sake is sometimes more cut with chemicals (grain alcohol from Thailand) than from rice. It couldn't be drunk cold. You would feel sick. (I did once and yes I really felt sick).

So upon drinking this the following two results would be achieved. 1) you would drink something that didn't taste that good, but because you never tasted anything better you wouldn't know, and 2) if you drank too much you'd probably get a nasty hangover from all the chemicals.

We think it's safer to order a cold sake if we don't know any if the brands (and make it a ginjo thanks). Heating can mask a multitude of sins :-) but if it's cold you have a fighting chance of drinking something good.

Now all this is not to say that all hot sake is bad. Far from it. We've heard "if your sake is hot then you're either drinking poorly or you're skiing". Whilst that is a witty saying it is by no means the truth.

 Small izakaya in Okazaki

There are many good sakes out there that are lovely warmed (not too much - it's sake not ocha). We especially love the Gozenshu Mimasaka warm. The Gassan cho karakuchi (Blue) which is already dry with a nihonshudo of 6 is great at 'blood temperature'. We recommend these along with the Kounotsukasa cho karakuchi with a whopping nihonshudo ( SMV ) of 13' and the Hourai Hidanotambo and Eikoo Shusen as great to drink warm.

But our faves all being said and done are the junmai daiginjo varieties served chilled. But that's us. And what do we know? :-)

Happy sake drinking and don't forget, if you are looking to buy sake in Sydney or Melbourne or Adelaide or Brisbane etc, please go to us at www.supersake.com.au

Our store is located with Tsunami Japanese restaurant at 18 Glyde street Mosman Park.


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