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Learn About Japanese Sake Sets
What are the Different Types of Japanese Sake Glasses and Cups?
There are many different types of Japanese sake cups, each serving a unique purpose. The main ones include:
Imagine a sake cup, and you’re likely picturing an ochoko. These small, stubby vessels are by far the most common in Japan. While many mistake them for shot glasses, they are nothing of the sort. Instead, the sake inside is meant to be slowly savored, often beside a pitcher to help with pouring. Most ochoko hold around 45 mm of sake, however, they come in all shapes and sizes.
Sakazuki, also known as hirahai, are flat sake cups said to be the oldest style in Japan. They are often used in ceremonies, such as traditional Japanese weddings, or when pouring a small sample. The open rim spreads the sake over the palate, amplifying the flavor. They are also a popular choice for warm “kanzake” sake.
Guinomi are essentially bigger ochoko, promoting generous servings and heftier mouthfuls. The larger rim also accentuates the aromas.
Often sold as a set with ochoko, tokkuri are sake pitchers used to facilitate pouring. Coming in bulky bottles of up to 1800 ml, serving sake can be strenuous. To make it easier, sake is poured from the bottle into the smaller tokkuri, which is then used to top up the sake glasses. Tokkuri are also useful for making warm kanzake by immersing it in hot water or placing it in the microwave (depending on material).
Katakuchi are another form of sake pitcher often resembling a scaled-up sakazuki. They are flat and low, often with a small spout to help pour. The open mouth diffuses sake aromas throughout the room, allowing full appreciation of the rich bouquet.
What are Japanese Sake Glasses and Cups Made From?
Influencing flavor, aroma, and temperature, careful consideration needs to be given to sake cup material before purchasing. The most common include:
Ceramic sake cups are the standard in Japan. There are thousands of potters and kilns dotting the country, many of which boast deep histories. Some of the most ancient and renowned are the pioneering Imari-Arita ware from Saga, Mino wear from Gifu, Kiyomizu ware from Kyoto, Mikawachi ware from Nagasaki, and Bizen ware from Okayama. Used carefully, ceramics are surprisingly strong and are ideal for heating up sake. Their thickness will also hinder the warmth of your hand from spoiling cold sake. Ceramics are also said to soften the taste of sake, making them ideal for newcomers. Of course, there is a staggering variety of styles, from fine Arita porcelain to rustic, bumpy Bizen ware, and more.
Lacquerware is an ancient craft made from wood coated in layers of lacquer, a kind of natural paint traditionally made from resin. Lacquerware sake cups are both tough and elegant, making good all rounders. The longer you use them, the more beautiful and distinctive they grow. While strong thermal insulation makes them ill-suited for heating sake, they are perfect for holding kanzake after it has been warmed, as the heat will remain for longer and won’t burn your hands. Famous lacquerware crafts include Yakumo lacquerware from Shimane, Wajima lacquerware from Ishikawa, and Niigata lacquerware from Niigata.
While not as ancient as ceramics or lacquerware, glass has a surprisingly profound history in Japan. The crux of Japanese glassware is the elegant Edo and Satsuma “kiriko” cut glass, and the radiant, colorful Tsugaru vidro. Glass is said to bring out a sake’s sharpness and heighten its bouquet, making it more suited for seasoned drinkers. Glass is superb for chilling sake, as well as for admiring the hues of colored sake varieties like koshu. Avoid using glass for warm sake as it may crack or burn your hands.
Wood carries its own distinctive fragrances and flavors that can alter sake, encouraging a more nuanced, complex flavor. While most favored for the box-like “masu,” wooden ochoko, tokkuri, and more, are readily available. The pinnacle of this craft is Kyo Sashimono, a wood joinery technique from Kyoto said to have originated in the Heian period (794-1185).
Being the most durable material, metal allows you to drink freely without concern of dropping and breaking your precious sake cup. Metal is also a match made in heaven for cold sake, thoroughly chilling it even after just several minutes in the fridge. It also works well for warm sake, however, its high thermal conductivity requires extra attention to ensure the sake and cup doesn’t get too hot. And absolutely do not put metal in the microwave!
Metalworking has a long history in Japan, with some of the most common crafts being Osaka Naniwa, a kind of pewter ware, Takaoka bronze casting, and Tenmyo metal casting. The most sought after metals for sake cups are tin and copper, which both have their own characteristics and properties.
How to Choose the Perfect Japanese Sake Set
When settling on your next Japanese sake set, three elements need to be considered:
Material is the most important element, as it will define your drinking style. If you wish to indulge in warm sake, opt for the heat-resistant ceramics and steer clear of delicate materials, like glass and even wood. Metal can also be good, but its rapid thermal conduction means it gets hot quickly, so don’t leave it unattended. For cold sake, metal, particularly tin or copper, will keep your sake nice and chilled, perfect for a refreshing cup in summer! Glass is also excellent for chilled sake, although it gradually warms up from the heat of your hand. Ceramics, the true all-rounder, work perfectly fine too, just opt for a thicker size to keep it frosty for longer.
・ Shape and Size
The main shapes deserving attention are the width of the rim and tallness of the glass. Glasses with a narrow rim tend to yield a sharper flavor, while wide rims coax out extra aromas. “Ginjo” sake is known for its fragrances, so a wide-rim glass should be used for maximum pleasure, while those who prefer dry sake like “honjozo” should opt for taller glasses with narrow rims to enhance the alcoholic bite. Size is more up to personal preference - if you don’t want to be constantly refilling your cup, then opt for a larger one. However, warm or chilled sake will start to lose its temperature if drunk slowly in a larger cup.
Design is all in the eye of the beholder! Thankfully, sake glasses and cups come in a diverse range, from traditional to modern, simple to extravagant. Pick a few that suit different moods and scenes to get your sake serving game on point!
How to drink Japanese sake like a pro
Either place the sake bottle directly into the fridge, or pour some sake into a glass or ceramic tokkuri, cover the top with plastic wrap (if there’s no lid), and leave it for a few hours before drinking.
Transfer sake into a ceramic or metal tokkuri. Fill a pot with water and submerge the tokkuri until roughly half its height. If you have too much or too little water, adjust accordingly. Remove the tokkuri and boil the water on the stove, then allow it to cool for a few moments (do not use boiling water for warm sake). Place the tokkuri in the hot water and let it sit for a few minutes. This will yield a warm sake between 35°C - 45°C that can be enjoyed immediately. In the microwave, a small 180 ml tokkuri will be heated to around 35°C in approximately 40 seconds (500 W, do not use metal). The amount of time you heat the sake will greatly affect the taste, so experiment to find a temperature you like!
Different Types of Sake
Sake types are mostly classified by ingredients and method. At the forefront is the “rice polishing ratio” and the usage of brewer’s alcohol. Generally speaking, the lower the rice polishing ratio, which denotes the percentage of rice remaining after being milled, the more fragrant and higher quality the sake. While numerous types are available, sake can be broadly separated into the following:
The most common and cheapest sake. While loosely defined, the polishing ratio is likely high with brewer’s alcohol added.
Minimum 70% rice polishing ratio with brewer’s alcohol added, often smooth and dry.
Minimum 60% rice polishing ratio, often fragrant and light.
Minimum 50% rice polishing ratio, going up to around 30%. Extremely fragrant and full bodied.
Means “pure rice” in Japanese, indicating that no brewer’s alcohol has been used. You can have junmai ginjo, junmai daiginjo, and more.
Unpasteurized sake, with a fresh, rich taste. Needs to be refrigerated.
Undiluted with water, giving it a higher alcohol content and heavier taste.
Unfiltered, with small bits of rice remaining in the sake giving off a cloudy hue.
Aged sake, often has a reddish color.
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