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Sake: Service Please!

Anthony Rose Anthony Rose
Sake serving guiding principles: The right sakeware, drinking and storing temperatures for the different styles of Sake.
While eating out in Akita one evening with Naoki Suzuki, the 19th generation owner of Suzuki Brewery in Akita Prefecture, each of his four sakes were served in wine glasses of varying sizes. Why wine glasses for this most traditional of breweries? Naoki’s view of tradition was partly based on pride, but also in part on a responsibility he felt towards his ancestors to keep innovating. While he could understand some of his fellow sake brewers’ resistance, he believed that for premium sake (ginjo grade and even some junmai and honjozo), the wine glass was an excellent vessel for enjoying the aromatics of sake and spreading the texture around the mouth. For warm sake however, he recommended the traditional small sake cup (ochoko).
Some sake breweries make a special seasonal sake in time for the cherry blossom season in the spring.

Experience sake with different types of cups

On my first visit to Japan in 2007, as a group of us sat round cross-legged on tatami mats at a traditional Tokyo izakaya (sake bar), a wicker tray arrived laden with an assortment of ochokos of different shapes and colours. I discovered not just the sake ochoko, but also the experience of choosing your own sake cup. Made of ceramic, glass or wood, the ochoko offers a visual and tactile pleasure linking the vessel to the sake-drinking experience and the style of sake being drunk. On the subsequent consumer sake course devised by Christine Parkinson (wine and sake buyer) and me at London’s Sake No Hana, we devoted part of the session to the etiquette of serving sake to your neighbour, waiting for your neighbour to pour for you and holding the decanter, the tokkuri, with both hands when pouring for others.
After visiting Japan, I felt that the medium should convey the message, that Japanese culture should be respected in every aspect of sake drinking, including not mixing the wine grape and the sake grain. The etiquette surrounding drinking sake from small cups is rooted in tradition and history rather than culinary experience. Pouring for someone else allows you the opportunity to demonstrate your generosity by regularly refilling the cups of your friends and colleagues. A small cup also mean that you can knock back a few without feeling woozy. On the other hand, their small size makes swirling the liquid for aromatic effect virtually impossible.
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A typical collection of ochoko cups.
Japanese tradition doesn’t take into account the western cultural norms which dictate that a good wine needs the perfect stemware to do the food accompanying it justice. This is where Naoki Suzuki and his forward-looking counterparts in the sake industry come in. As we wine drinkers with our Riedel, Schott and Zalto stemware are well aware, the shape, size and delicacy of a wine glass plays a major part in the enjoyment of wine. When the wine boom hit Japan in the mid-1990s and the Japanese realized that the shape of a glass could affect aroma and taste perceptions, whether of sake or wine, the search was on to find the most suitable shape for the expression of sake’s unique characteristics.
In 1997, the Austrian glass manufacturer Riedel was approached by Fukumitsuya Co. Ltd., a sake producer in Ishikawa Riedel, to develop the ideal glass for Japanese sake. Realising that a one-size-fits-all glass wasn’t going to work for the various different styles of sake, daiginjo, the highest premium grade of sake, was selected as the target. Without being told the purpose of the trial, the sake industry guinea pigs who tried out the new glass found the experience thoroughly enjoyable – until, that is, they were told it was designed for daiginjo sake. Cue a massive rowback on their enthusiasm by the custodians of sake’s deep-rooted culture when faced with an invasion of centuries of Japanese tradition. Eventually however, the custodians recognised that modern sake really did require a suitably modern makeover to match.
Since the creation of the daiginjo glass, the open-minded Japanese have gradually changed their traditional approach to sake to the adoption of a more practical sensory appreciation. In accepting what works best, and to optimise the application of the vessel according to its specific purpose and the occasion, they have also inevitably expanded the range of the choice of vessel. After the daiginjo glass, Riedel then developed the junmai glass, whose cocktail glass-like shape was deemed to be better suited to the non-aromatic, textured style of sake that’s more versatile with a variety of different dishes. More recently, Sugihara Glassware have come up with an aesthetic range of five handmade glasses specially designed for five major styles: daiginjo, kijoshu, koshu, honjozo and sparkling sake.
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There are different types of Sake that can be drunk with specially designed glasses.

Sake serving temperatures

Venturing into the many thousands of restaurants in Japan today serving premium, food-friendly ginjo or junmai with more non-traditional Japanese or other mainstream food styles, the culinary and sensory objectives will generally take precedence over tradition. The result is many new ways in which to enjoy sake. It’s mostly enjoyed cold or chilled at around 5 - 10°C for premium sake, or even up to 14°C. It’s a myth however to think that serving sake hot is somehow naff or old-fashioned. On the contrary, the Japanese like to say that there are three drinks in one bottle of sake, referring to the fact that sake can be drunk chilled, at room temperature and warm.
There are various reasons for drinking sake at temperatures other than chilled. Certain styles, know as kan-agari, lend themselves better to room temperature or warm, or even hot, notably full-bodied honjozo, junmai, yamahai and kimoto. At room temperature, or thereabouts, flavours and textures that can show rusticity or bitterness become softer, richer and more appealing. With the improvement in sake quality, the need for warmth to cover defects no longer holds and sake warm is enjoyed according to the style of sake, the type of dish and to bring warmth during the cold winter months in Japan’s north. Thanks to its heat retaining capacity, a traditional ochoko is a better bet for warm and hot sake than a glass.
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There is a myth that serving hot sake is somehow naff and old-fashioned. Hot Sake is often preferred during cold weather.
The introduction of the ‘wine glass’ does not necessarily herald the end of sake civilization as we know it any more than the invention of the screwcap has seen the extinction of the corkscrew. I don’t see twelve millenia of Japanese ceramics suddenly going up in smoke, nor my own proud collection of ceramic, wood and lacquer sakeware gathering dust. Like many others, on the right occasion, with the ideal sake and its food match, I will continue to enjoy the ochoko and its accompanying tokkuri with my sake-loving friends.
Japanese Poem of Temperatures
0 – 5°C: Mizore-Zake: semi-froizen, like sorbet
5 – 10°C: Yuki-hie: the temperature of a snowy day
10 – 15°C: Hana-hie: the chilly temperature of the cherry blossom season
15 – 30°C: Suzu-hie: reminiscentof a cool breeze
30 – 35°C: Hinata-kan: as warm as comforting sunlight
35 – 40°C: Nuru-kan: the warmth of a relaxing hot spring spa
45 – 50°C: Jo-kan: taut, refined heat
5o - 55°C: Atsu-kan: hot enough to warm body and soul
55 +°C: Tobikiri-san: extremely hot
How to Warm Sake
Pour sake into a tokkuri or similar carafe and warm it up to two thirds of its height in a saucepan of hot water. Bring it slowly to the desired temperature, or, if the water is boiled first, then turn off the heat and allow the carafe to stand in the water for two to three minutes until the temperature reduces to around 80°C.A thermometer can be used to avoid overheating the sake. You can also use a microwave, taking care not to boil the sake. If you do it this way, pour the sake into a heat-resistant vessel, cover with clingfilm, and then transfer to the tokkuri.
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Tsuchida Te To Te Kimoto, Gunma Prefecture.
Pronounced savoury and nutty umami aromas with mushroomy notes, a sweetness turning to savoury with firm acidity and plenty of character.
Tatenokawa 33 Three Peaks.
Junmai Daiginjo, Yamagata Prefecture. Intensely fragrant with floral and spicy notes followed by a glossy, almost fruity textured sake whose firm streak of acidity brings freshness and balance.
Urakusumi Zen Junmai Ginjo. Miyagi Prefecture.
Showing a fine, cedary fragrance, this is a classic, satisfyingly ‘fruity’ ginjo with elegant balance.
Dewazakura Oka Ginjo Cherry Bouquet, Yamagata Prefecture.
Intensely aromatic, as ginjo should be, this delivers an appealing, savoury style of sake with an underlying nuttiness of flavour and excellent balance.
For more insights, see Sake and the Wines of Japan by Anthony Rose -