Roberto Maxwell describes how the type of vessel influences the experience of Japanese sake. The introduction of glass has opened up new possibilities for this traditional beverage.
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Mistakenly known as “rice wine,” sake is indeed made from Asia’s most popular grain. However, the fermented beverage that has now become a symbol of Japan is actually closer to beer. Both drinks are made from raw ingredients that don’t contain any simple sugars and that must go through a process of saccharification before becoming an alcoholic beverage. In sake’s case, sugar production and its subsequent transformation into alcohol take place in the same tank, a process called multiple parallel fermentation.
With a history of thousands of years, sake has accompanied Japanese people on both joyous and sorrowful occasions and, along with it, cups of various styles have been created to allow one to taste the fermented beverage. In other words, a full sake experience goes far beyond the choice of label. The cup is a fundamental part of sake tasting.
Sake is undergoing a new wave of popularity outside Japan, contrasting to the decline in domestic consumption, with beer being more popular amongst the Japanese. This recent momentum has been spearheaded by the emergence of new rituals for tasting the fermented beverage. Once limited to the universe of Japanese restaurants, sake now occupies drink menus in establishments of other cuisines, both inside and outside Japan. With the growing presence of sake on tables of different palates, the glasses, and tasting rituals are also changing.
Tasting sake “Japanese style”
In Japan, sake is said to be food’s best friend. Umami, a flavor almost always associated with Japanese cuisine, is a type of enhancer of other flavors. As most sake is rich in umami components, the beverage usually works very well in food pairings.
Izakayas and restaurants dedicated to Japanese dishes often pay special attention to their sake menu. Likewise, the choice of tableware is very judicious. In these restaurants, sake usually comes to the table in small bottles known as tokkuri, which are accompanied by small cups called o-choko. The set can be made of glass or ceramics, the latter being more common. Ceramics’ earthy component is generally associated with comfort and, for many people, it brings a warm tactile sensation.
One of the lesser-known features of sake in the West is its versatility with regard to temperature. Depending on the label, the beverage can be served hot, iced, or at room temperature. Generally speaking, sake is heated in a water bath, often inside the tokkuri in which it will be served. Ceramic o-chokos, on the other hand, retain the sake’s temperature for longer, whether it is served hot or iced. The tactile sensation is also accompanied by the visual beauty of the pieces. An o-choko produced by a great master potter can add a great deal to the experience of tasting sake.
Izakayas, like English pubs, are informal spaces for sipping and nibbling. In these spaces, it is not uncommon for sake to be served in a square cedar cup called masu. The shape is strange since it does not resemble a drinking vessel. And although it is used as such, the masu is not really a cup. We might rather call it the right object in the right place at the right time. The first izakayas emerged in rice stores, which were not exactly drinking spaces. As sake was also sold there, people started to consume it right on the spot. In the absence of cups, the masu – which was a rice meter – eventually took over the role. Today, the masu has an entertainment function. A cup is placed inside the container, which is filled until it overflows. The liquid then spills into the masu, which becomes a kind of refill, as it will be used to fill the cup again.
New features in sake serving
To produce sake, the rice must be polished, a process that extracts substances that can bring unwanted flavors to the drink. It is thought that the more polished the rice, the more refined and elegant the sake will be. Sakes produced with highly polished rice are called ginjo or daiginjo. Ginjo is a word referring to the aromas present in the sake. Ginjo sake, therefore, tends to be aromatic and fruity. Daiginjo, which adds the suffix ‘dai’ (large) is thus a super aromatic sake. Beverages in these two categories are made of 60% of rice grain in their production. A futsu-style sake – i.e. regular sake – 90% of it is made from grain.
Polishing rice is a laborious process that, in the past, was done completely by hand. For this reason, it was impractical to produce sake with highly polished rice. Sake made with 60% or less rice only became possible with recent technological developments and the ginjo and daiginjo styles became more common from the 1980s onwards when polishing machines became more affordable.
Because they use less rice grain, ginjo and daiginjo sakes are more expensive than futsu or regular sake. Yet, the favorable economic conditions of the 1980s allowed them to succeed and become a benchmark of quality, initially in Japan and later in the rest of the world. Many saw these categories as a way for sake to finally break through the bubble of Japanese restaurants.
The way was then open for the tasting parameters of wine to be widely applied to the consumption of sake, including the use of wide-bowl, narrow-mouthed glasses. Consuming aromatic sake in this type of vessel makes the aromas stand out, providing a fuller tasting experience. Also, especially in the West, it is much more common for people to have a wine glass at home than Japanese-style cups.
So sake connoisseurs, especially outside Japan, began to adopt drinking rituals similar to those used for wine: checking the color against a light background, swirling the cup to make the drink “breathe”, putting the nose inside the container to evaluate the aromas, and so on.
O-choko or wine glass: conflict of traditions?
As a sake sommelier, I notice how surprised people are when a wine glass is offered for tasting sake. There is still a strong idea that such a drinking experience is only complete if cups recognized as Japanese are used. On the other hand, there is a certain fetishization of the idea that sake can only be fully enjoyed in glasses.
The moment is mobilizing the market. Big names in the production of drinking glasses, such as the Austrian maker Riedel have already put on the market specific vessels for the consumption of different types of sake. On the other hand, Japanese experts are trying to deconstruct the idea that glasses are not suitable for consuming sake. Many of them point to kiriko, a type of colorful and textured glassware developed in Japan as an alternative to the European glass cups, but with the advantage of bringing in the Japanese cultural baggage.
For sake, this discussion signifies new directions, including an international path, and a hope for the rehabilitation of the beverage in the Japanese scene. For some years now, production and consumption of sake have been in decline on the domestic market. In contrast, the volume of exports of sake had been growing steadily until before the pandemic, and the assessment of sake professionals is a trend that will continue in this post-covid era.
The internationalization of sake is already affecting the way the drink is consumed beyond the vessels used. In Brazil, for example, there is a cocktail called saquerinha (or caipisaquê), an adaptation of caipirinha, in which sake is used in place of the traditional cachaça, a local sugarcane-based distillate. The use of sake as an alcoholic base for cocktails is still not widespread in Japan, where the dominant discourse is that sake can only be drunk pure.
However, the new outlook from abroad is already leading some establishments, such as the award-winning Bar Trench (2022 Asia’s 50 Best #25), to serve drinks with sake. In fact, the successful Spirts & Sharing group, which runs places like Memento Mori (2022 Asia’s 50 Best #41), recently opened Folklore, a bar dedicated to cocktails made with sake and shochu, a Japanese distillate.
The adoption of wine glasses for sake consumption is also a reality in Japan. The creation, in 2011, of The Fine Sake Awards, which rewards sake that does better in wine glasses, is proof of this. In my travels around the country, I have been identifying more and more restaurants, including those of Japanese food, serving the beverage this way. There is an appeal for the different as a way to conquer new consumers, of course. But the most important thing for me, as a sake lover, is that the coexistence of the “traditional” and the “contemporary” will lead more people to try this drink with more than 2000 years of history. Whether in o-choko or in a wine glass, may we always toast. Kanpai!
About Roberto Maxwell
Roberto Maxwell is a Brazilian residing in Japan since 2005. A filmmaker and a geographer by training, Maxwell started working as a journalist in the Land of the Rising Sun, where he specializes in Japanese tourism and gastronomic culture. In the last few years, he directed his focus to kokushu, the Japanese alcoholic beverages: sake, shochu, and awamori. He created the short film series of six episodes, 3XSake, in which he visited sakaguras (sake breweries) in various parts of Japan to hear stories from sake makers. He has also been creating and offering tourist experiences involving sake in Japan, as well as events to promote sake and other Japanese beverages abroad. One of them is The Shochu Academy Brasil, a training program about shochu and awamori aimed at bartenders and beverage professionals. The event had its second edition in São Paulo in March 2023. Follow @robertomaxwell.
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