Sake (rice wine) has been produced and enjoyed for over 1,000 years in Japan, and has recently become popular in many other parts of the world. There are many varieties of Japanese sake, or nihonshu, each with its own unique flavours and characteristics. However, we rarely stop to think about the impact of the different cups and tools used for storing, preparing, and drinking sake. Though we might not always realize it, the right sake cup can change the way the drink tastes when it hits our lips.
Japanese Sake is enjoyed in a variety of ways, and can be drunk from many different types of cups. For example, there are specific cups that accentuate the taste of warm sake, and others that are better suited for a cold, refreshing drink.
The most common type of sake cup is the ochoko. This is a small cup which can sometimes look like a shot glass – however, sake is not meant to be drunk quickly. Ochoko are said to make sake taste clean and refreshing, but these cups are not ideal for understanding the rich and complex flavours of certain sake. One of the key characteristics of this vessel is that they are small, and need to be refilled very often. In Japanese culture, it is common for people to fill others’ cups as a show of generosity and hospitality. This makes the ochoko a perfect cup for a party or a fun night out with friends as it cultivates a friendly and respectful atmosphere.
Another type of sake cup is the sakazuki. This is a shallower, wider-mouthed cup often used for special events such as weddings. The wide mouth of sakazuki allows the aroma of the drink to easily reach the drinker’s nose, which adds depth to the sake drinking experience. The flared rim of the cup also helps to spread the sake throughout the entire mouth, enhancing the flavour of the sake. This allows the drinker to taste the complex flavours of the sake. These shallow, wide-mouth cups can also be emptied into one’s mouth without tilting the head back, which allows the sake to sit in the mouth, adding to the degree to which one can taste the subtle flavours in the sake.
Guinomi are another variety of sake cup, which are a bit like a larger version of ochoke. However, unlike ochoke, guinomi have a more artisanal quality about them, with uneven textures adding to the tactile experience of sake drinking. These vessels can be very beautiful, and are often collected and kept as art pieces.
The next variety of cup, the masu, is perhaps the most unique to Japanese culture. These are small wooden boxes made from the sugi tree (Japanese cedar), from which sake is drunk. The wood can add the aroma of cedar to the sake, which some think is pleasant, while others may feel that it distracts from the true flavour of the nihonshu. Masu are often served with a smaller glass full of sake inside, which is filled to the point of overflowing. After finishing the sake in the smaller vessel, the drinker can enjoy what is left in the masu. This is commonly done at izakaya in Japan to show their hospitality.
The tokkuri is not a cup to drink from, but rather a container from which to pour sake. The name tokkuri comes from the Japanese onomatopoeia “toku toku”, which is the sound of liquid being poured. These flasks can be used to hold warm, room temperature, or chilled sake. The narrow neck of the tokkuri helps to prevent heat from escaping.
Lastly, in recent years it has become more common to drink sake out of wine glasses. Sake’s aroma is subtler than that of wine, and glassware can help to bring out the subtle flavours and aromas. Wine glasses work well for chilled or room temperature sake, but glass does not provide the insulation necessary to enjoy warm sake.
As you can see, there is a lot more to sake than just the drink itself. The cups are said to change the way we taste and experience sake, so why not try and see if you can notice the difference between drinking from an ochoko and a sakazuki?
Feature Photo by Duong Thinh on Unsplash
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