Or natural wood, lacquered wood, glass or even plastic…
For those of us who love the delicious complexity of sake, the vessel from which we drink is often something of an afterthought. But it shouldn’t be.
A sake set is a generic term for the collection of items used for serving sake. It usually comprises a small flask and cups. Many sets are still made of ceramic, but they are increasingly made from natural wood, lacquered wood, glass or even plastic.
Let me liken a cup/glass/box to shoes. We have trainers for every day. On the other hand, we enjoy wearing high heels (if we are women, that is) as we know we move in a more elegant fashion. Perhaps the sakazuki, a flat saucer-like vessel, can be likened to those classic shoes. So let’s consider the popular shapes and materials for sake cups both traditional and contemporary.
The oldest cup style, the wide saucer-like sakazuki, is more often seen at formal ceremonial events such as weddings these days. Shallow and refined, this cup is lifted to the lips with both hands: one to hold the bottom of the cup like a tray and the other to hold it on the rim. Sakazuki are available in a variety of sizes but typically they hold only a few sips. Sakazuki can be ornately decorated and are usually made from porcelain, earthenware or lacquer. These sakazuki are, in my opinion, the high heels of sake drinking accoutrements. Beautiful, elegant but not over-practical for a long night out.
The cup of choice
A much more robust alternative is the ubiquitous wooden drinking box called masu. Traditionally these boxes have a volume of 180 ml. A 720 ml bottle of sake equals a serving of sake for 4 people! They were originally used to measure rations of rice. The masu can be filled to the rim as a sign of prosperity; or a small glass can be put into the masu and filled to overflowing to symbolise abundance. Masu can be found in lacquerware but I prefer the pale wood of the traditional box. They are hard to break and able to hold a decent amount of sake, so have become the cup of choice for enjoying sake at festivals, cherry-blossom viewing (‘hanami’) and for me, picnics by the river. One can pretend it’s spring in Japan. Today, masu are often used at those iconic sake barrel-opening ceremonies called ‘kagami biraki’ and at traditional Japanese pubs (‘izakaya’). Some folks argue that the best masu for enjoying certain varieties of sake are those made from Japanese cypress. This gives still more aroma and flavour from the natural material.
Anybody who has taken a sake course will have likely used a small, white, ceramic cylindrical vessel called ochoko or choko. These days ochoko is considered similar to guinomi which is the same shape, although ochoko are usually smaller than guinomi. Sake producers and tasters use a special large ochoko called kikichoko. It has a circular blue and white design on the bottom of the inside of the vessel. The blue hue and pattern are used in the evaluation of the colour and clarity; the cup’s wide opening allows for the sake’s subtleties of aroma to be appreciated.
A wine glass will heighten aromas
Stemware is also available these days, with a sake cup being mounted on a wide base. Glass is now commonly used to serve chilled sake, where one can enjoy the dew forming on the outside of the vessel. A white or red wine glass with a wide mouth is suitable for enjoying the fragrant styles where aroma is most important. This drink is delicate and subtle so tasting from a wine glass instead of a small sake cup will heighten aromas and flavours. Crystal wine glasses are thinner than ceramic ware and can change the perception of sake’s body and complexity. Yes, sake can be served over ice and so sipping from a cut-glass whisky tumbler can be a pleasurable experience.
One is spoilt for choice when it comes to drinking vessels. If one is tasting professionally then there is a lot to be said for the traditional industry-standard ochoko or a glass with a wide mouth. But for me, I’ll be sticking to my cheap Daiso-bought sake set. It’s a traditional design which might not allow the character of the sake to burst forth, but I feel I am really immersing myself in sake culture when consuming it in such a way. So try all the options, make your choice, but do drink sake!
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018