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Lesson 6: Sake vessels and etiquette

by Andy Wong 29 Jul 2022

When drinking sake, most people think of traditional Japanese vessels such as “ochoko” (cups.) These days, however, there is much more flexibility to drink with whatever suits your tastes. Many find that delicate sake can be more delicious in a wine glass! The type of vessels can actually influence how you sense its aroma and flavor sensations on your palate. In this lesson, we’ll introduce you to different vessels and share some basic etiquette to make the sake experience more fun and enjoyable!

Vessels influence sake’s flavor

For sake that fall into the ginjo or daiginjo categories, we recommend drinking with a wine glass rather than Japanese traditional sake cups like ochoko. A wine glass helps to collect and release nuanced aromas over a larger surface area, whereas with a small ochoko, the fragrance is not as palpable.

The size of the rim of a vessel affects the perception of acidity. A glass with a wide rim will allow the acidity to come through more clearly, compared to a glass with a narrow rim where the acidity is minimized and umami comes in front. Because the rim is where the drinker makes contact with the sake, the thickness of the glass can influence the perception of sweetness and finish: a thick glass will give a sweeter, longer finish, whereas a thin glass will make for a drier, lighter finish. Understanding how vessels work — the effect of the bowl size on density, of height on flavor, and material on texture — isn’t necessary to enjoying sake but it can show off its full flavor potential.

Try drinking a fruity ginjo with a wine glass or a flavorful junmai with a ochoko. If you feel the sake doesn’t taste the way it should,try changing the vessel first and you’ll see how it influences the aroma, flavor and texture of the sake.

Vessels influence sake’s flavor

Serving etiquette: tokkuri and ochoko

Although in today’s sake culture, the rules for drinking aren’t as strict or ceremonial as they used to be, it can still be fun to learn about the unique vessels born in Japan and some basic etiquette that can impress your drinking buddies, business associates or sweet date!

The first thing to keep in mind, (and this is typically how Japanese people hold and present various objects): hold vessels with both hands. When pouring sake for someone, hold the “tokkuri” (Japanese sake decanter) with your right hand and touch the other side with your left hand.

Serving etiquette: tokkuri and ochoko

Now, when someone else is pouring sake for you into your ochoko, the proper way to receive it would be to hold the ochoko with your right hand while touching the bottom of the ochoko with your left hand. If you want to level up, use your right index finger as a “cushion” for the tokkuri not to clash your ochoko. And of course, after pouring, take at least one sip before putting your ochoko on the table. Voila! Easy sake etiquette goes a long way!

Basically, when you drink with someone, it’s a nice gesture to pour sake for each other — similar to drinking wine, really. It’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s customary to not let the other person pour his/her own sake — especially when it’s your boss or your client. Finally, when someone tries to offer you more sake, finish drinking the sake left in your ochoko before holding it out for them to do so.

How to drink sake mokkiri and masu

How to drink sake mokkiri and masu

Sake filled in a glass in a wooden square cup is called mokkiri.

Some Japanese restaurants serve sake filled in a glass in a wooden square cup. This is known as mokkiri. Here’s how to drink sake, mokkiri style:

  • Put ice and water in a big bowl.
  • Add a teaspoon of salt in the bowl and stir. Place the sake bottle in a plastic bag (to prevent the label from getting wet), then, position it in the bowl and wait for 30 minutes.
How to drink sake mokkiri and masu

“Masu” is a traditional measuring container for rice or liquid, and also functions as a vessel for drinking sake. The proper way of sipping sake from a masu is not from its corner but from its side. Although, there are some instances when salt is added on the corner of masu to be enjoyed while drinking drier sake like honjozo or “futsushu;” (table sake) this drinking style can help to mask the umami or sweetness, if that is what is preferred.

Vessels and etiquette can contribute to the sake experience, but don’t forget: the most important thing is to enjoy sake and make people comfortable rather than clinging to manners and rules. Let this knowledge make your drinking time fun!

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