I’ve been going through some old news articles from December 2018, hence the recent article about heating sake, but here’s a more recent one on a more summery topic from Excite News – sake on the rocks.
The first question, amusingly enough, is “Is sake on the rocks a perversion?” Some might think so, the author concedes. It’s not the first thing you think of for brewed drinks, so it can sound like a joke.
However, sake on ice has actually been around for a long time. Even the venerable [and quasi-mythical] Nihon Shoki (日本書記, Chronicles of Japan) describes ice being brought from icehouses to the city in summer and put in “sake”. [Which isn’t necessarily sake/nihonshu.]
But apart from this [rather dubious] historical background, why would you drink sake on ice? The first reason suggested is that as sake is on the strong side for a brewed drink, putting ice in it naturally leads to dilution and therefore less alcohol by volume.
You might see a flaw in this plan, namely that not just the alcohol but also the flavour will be diluted. But not if you choose the right sake, one that can stand up to dilution and instead becomes smoother in mouthfeel and aroma and even more delicious.
A lower temperature also creates a different drinking experience, and ice is the best way to regulate temperature when you don’t have time to chill a bottle. It’s also a better way to keep a sake cool when your only other choice is leaving an isshōbin [一升瓶, 1.8 litre “magnum” bottle] out on a table.
The article estimates that adding ice to sake will take it’s temperature down by 2 or 3 degrees (Celsius), which is enough to make it seem fresher. And if you drink it slowly, you’ll get to experience it in two different states – sharper when cool, then as the temperature comes back up and the ice melts, the flavours become mellower.
Another advantage the article suggests is food pairing – sake on the rocks goes well with vinegar. Shimesaba [salted and vinegared mackerel], fish nanban-zukre [marinated and fried], octopus with wakame and vinegar, or Chinese dishes with sweet vinegar. Many vinegared dishes are light and so served in the summer, perfect to go with some sake on ice. The same applies to pickles and dishes with balsamic vinegar.
Finally two tips for drinking sake on the rocks. First, be choosy about the ice. The author recommends either buying ice made for drinks on the rocks, or making your own from mineral water. Size is another factor. If the ice is too small it will melt too quickly to enjoy the two states mentioned above, so go for large pieces.
The second tip is what to drink it from. If you want to enjoy the aroma and experience the change in flavour, try a low, wide vessel. Or if you want to keep it refreshing, go for a tall glass with lots of ice.
Recommendations for the sake itself are, unsurprisingly, genshu [原酒, undiluted sake], nigorizake [にごり酒, cloudy sake] especially if slightly fizzy when opened, and awazake [泡酒, sparkling sake] which can feel even more refreshing when cold. If a nigori is particularly heavy, dilution from ice can make it more pleasant.
There are even a few sake on the market specifically designed to be drunk on the rocks, such as Rokku no Jōzen Mizunogotoshi, Hōrai Garigari Genshu and Nishi no Seki Natsu no Osake Hiya.