Sake is a drink that is often associated with Japan – perhaps the only other drink as closely associated with Japan is Japanese tea. However, before one can enjoy the traditional delights, it is important to understand some things about Sake first: in a similar fashion to Japanese tea, there are some rituals associated with drinking Sake that are not only enjoyable in themselves but also add to the enjoyment of the drink itself!
Before we dive in, I think a quick overview of what Sake is is important! The drink known as ‘Sake’ in English is known as ‘Nihonshu’ in Japanese (literally, ‘Japanese liquor’) and is made from fermented rice. Having a history of being drunk for almost 2000 years in the islands of Japan, there have been many varieties created and refined over the centuries.
Whilst true connoisseurs will distinguish between their Sake in a variety of ways – such as the quality of the water used in the brewing process – the most common way to distinguish between different types is their ‘Sake Meter Volume’ (SMV, or 日本酒度 ‘Nihonshu-do’ in Japanese): measured out of five, the lower the grade, the sweeter the sake as a rule.
Moreover, sake quality is often categorised by the type of rice used: cheaper sake will often use table rice whereas more premium sake will make use of specific sake rice.
However, with the exception of ‘Amazake’ (’甘酒’- literally ‘sweet sake’) – which is traditionally drunk hot during the winter at shrines – most sake are drunk in a similar way.
So, after you have got some snacks to go with your sake (sake goes well with both savoury and sweet snacks!) it is time to settle down and start drinking!
To start with, normally the sake cup (known as a お猪口 ‘Ochyoko’) is placed inside a square box known as a ‘masu’ (‘枡’in Japanese) – a box that was originally used to measure out a day’s worth of rice – and poured from a flask called a ‘Tokkuri’ (徳利 in Japanese).
Whilst traditionally, people in groups pour each others sake (an action known as ‘酌む’, ‘kumu’ in Japanese), it is more common these days for that to be done only on the first round of sake. Also, it is considered a sign of generosity by the pourer to pour too much, letting it overflow into the masu.
If you like, you can also take a pinch of salt – normally placed in the corner of the masu as seen in the above diagram explaining ‘sosogi-koboshi’ – before drinking. This is especially good with sake with lower SMV, to help balance the sweetness.
After finishing the cup, you can carry on drinking from the masu itself.
Now that you know the correct way to drink sake, all that is left is to explore the entire world of sake out there! Sake is more versatile than most drinks – such as beer or wine – and can be enjoyed hot or cold, bitter or sweet and in a variety of different flavours and with different foods so there is something for everyone!