The technique used to heat and serve sake, kan or okan suru, seems equal parts ceremony and utility. You can use almost any heat source — fireplaces, cans with self-contained heating systems and even body heat — but it’s the act of heating, the altruism of it, that stands out here. A host skilled at kan has reached a milestone in home entertainment, one that exemplifies hospitality’s golden rule: The guest always comes first.
A practiced heating method transitions seamlessly, almost organically, to the act of serving the sake, which is almost an art unto itself. Heating methods differ, but they largely fall into three categories: water-immersion (yusen), steaming (mushikan) and microwaving (denshi renji kan). All three get the job done, but steaming and water-immersion are the only ones you need to concern yourself with; microwaves don’t quite lend the specialness you associate with serving sake.
You can heat any variety of sake; just like when served chilled, high-quality sake tastes better than low-quality sake. That said, everybody has different tastes, and if you prefer to heat high-quality or expensive sake, go ahead and heat it. The aversion to using high-quality sake is based on newer science, not bad taste. Technology has enabled distillers to design flavor profiles, which heat can alter, but it doesn’t transform them into bad flavor profiles; they’re just different from those the distiller intended.
Determine the temperature of the sake by feel — literally. A depression in the bottom of tokkuri, or sake decanter, forms a seal when submerged that keeps the area inside the depression dry; the temperature of the depression reflects the temperature of the sake. Sake serving temperatures vary by variety and style, but they have their own nomenclature:
- Hana-hie — Chilled (41-50F)
- Suzu-hie — Cool (50-59F)
- Hinata-kan — Sunlight warm (86-95F)
- Hitohada-kan — Body temperature (95-104F)
- Nuru-kan — Lukewarm (104-113)
- Jyoh-kan — Warm (113-122F)
- Atsu-kan — Hot (122-131F)
- Tobikiri-kan — Very hot (131F and over)
Only heat enough sake to drink at once and serve it immediately. Until you get the hang of it, you can roughly estimate the temperature of sake by measuring the temperature of the water used to heat the tokkuri.
- Add the sake to tokkuri (sake decanter) and set the tokkuri inside a pot.
- Add enough cold water to the pot to reach about halfway up level of the sake in the tokkuri.
- Let the sake heat, starting with the low setting on the stove and moving gradually to medium.
To use a steamer to heat sake, first fill it with enough water to reach just below the steaming basket. Add the tokkuri to the steamer and cover. Bring the water to a boil and serve.
A night of nabemono and warm sake is the order for a winter of good health and cheer. Most importantly, relax and have fun. Sake service shouldn’t feel pretentious or pressured, just naturally special.