There is no such thing as one-size-fits all when it comes to true luxury. And if you are going to splurge on liquid luxury like a rare sake – be it a Dassai Beyond or a Zankyo Super 7, each easily costing over half a grand for a 720ml bottle – don’t drink it from an ordinary glass. “Having the right sake cup can help the drinker enjoy the sake more – as it brings out the best in a sake through emphasising its aroma,” says Jake Norman, the manager and sake sommelier at Les Amis Groups’ modern Japanese restaurant Jinjo.

But a cup’s impact on your appreciation of the rice wine goes beyond technical aspects of bringing out bouquets or opening up the flavours. Its design can also change your perception of the beverage. “A rough-texture vessel triggers certain mental associations from the first touch, and you might perceive the sake to have a more rustic taste; whereas the glossy finish of a ceramic glassware might give the user the impression that the sake is smoother,” shares Andrew Tan, the founder of Japanese furniture and lifestyle brand Atomi. There aren’t clear-cut rules to what makes the “right” cup, but our experts share pointers that will help you up your sake cup-pairing ante.

Sake cups
From left to right: 1. Metal plated (copper, tin, pewter or gold/silver) retains the coolness of cold wine, so from the moment the hand touches the cup, to the feeling of the metal on the lips, to the taste of the sake in the mouth, the wine is cool and icy | 2. and 3. The larger flat surface of saucer-shaped sakazuki, typically used in traditional ceremonies, allows for immediate appreciation of the sake’s aroma. | 4. Bud-shaped vessels, which hold in the bouquet, are preferred for appreciation of nuanced or aged wines. | 5. Bowl-shaped ochoko cups help the wine to breathe, enhancing aroma while mellowing taste.

Sake cup material

Some say ceramic cups that help to soften the acidity in sakes are the best. Others argue that pewter – which boasts superior temperature control and is believed to have purifying qualities that can elevate the taste of a sake – is the true connoisseur’s choice. And there are those who appreciate the added perfume of hinoki, a type of cypress wood, from square masu cups, commonly used at sake barrel ceremonies. On the other end of the spectrum are fans of glass sake cups that are completely neutral. Depending on who you ask, the material for a “right” sake cup could differ wildly. On this, we say, pick whatever suits your fancy – except plastic cups, of course.

Form of the sake cup

The unique shape of traditional sake-drinking vessels outline the broad categories of sake cup forms. “We cannot generalise the characteristics of each cup due to many variations – such as the material used. However, there are general guidelines to matching the right cup to different sakes,” shares Tan.

Saucer-like cups such as the sakazuki – generally used during traditional ceremonies such as weddings – have a larger flat surface that makes it well suited for serving warm sake. Tan also notes that its design allows the sake’s aroma to be appreciated immediately upon pouring. Sakazukis usually hold just a few sips of sake at a time. For traditional sake-drinking, bowl-shaped guinomi or ochoko cups with a narrower base and a wide mouth are more suitable. Like the sakazuki, its wide rim gives the sake greater surface area to breathe, thus helping to bring out a mellower taste while highlighting its aroma. Other shapes that help to accentuate the sake’s aroma include horn-shaped cups that are perfect for daiginjos, which are prized for their perfume.

Conversely, bud-shaped cups with a slightly narrower mouth helps to hold back the perfume of the sake so that one can slowly appreciate the aroma while sipping on the sake. Sake cups of this form are preferred for savouring the nuanced nose and palate of aged sakes.

A sake glass set with clean, modern lines
A sake glass set with clean, modern lines

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Wine glasses as sake cups

“Drinking sake from wine glasses has become a norm recently,” observes Tan, citing influences from wine drinkers who love to swirl their wines before drinking. “In a traditional izakaya, the server will present a tray of ochoko of various sizes, shapes, materials and finishing for you to choose from, with each bottle or carafe of sake ordered. In those situations, it’s more authentic to drink the sake that way, instead of from a wine glass.

However, with globalisation and increasing popularity of sake in the Western part of the world, we are seeing the designs of the sake glasses to take on a more modern interpretation.” Norman also notes the emergence of speciality sake glasses, such as Usuhari Daiginjo Glass and the Riedel Junmai Glass released in 2018.

Stemmed sake cups
With globalisation, the design of sake cups begin to take on a more modern interpretation, one such example being these stemmed sake cups.

However, with the exception of purpose-built sake glasses, it might not be a good idea to swirl your sake in stemware designed for wines. While aromatic sakes might benefit from a large wine goblet just as a red Burgundy will blossom in stemware with a larger bowl, accentuating the nose and full flavours, Tan believes that chardonnay glasses are better suited for drinking sake, due to the rice wine’s more delicate profile – and you should only do it out of necessity.

(Related: Why these high-end sake makers are utilising wine-making techniques)

“Asking for a white wine glass might draw the displeasure of the chef at a traditional sushi restaurant. However, if you are dining in an Italian restaurant, it might be more suitable to request for a white wine glass to drink a nice bottle of Junmai Daiginjyo, as the table setting may look out of place with a traditional sake glass.

Patterns and colours of sake cups

While sake cups can come in myriad patterns and colours, serious tasters go for a special large ochoko known as janome choko or kikichoko. A white vessel with a concentric blue and white design at the base of the inside of the cup, it is used by sake producers to examine a sake’s colour and clarity. Similarly, purists tend to prefer neutral coloured cups that allow them to appreciate the colour of the tipple in hand.

Sake cup size

If you’ve ever wondered why sake cups are almost always tiny, that is because sake-drinking is traditionally a social activity, and filling up your drinking companion’s ochoko from the tokkuri carafe is a show of respect and camaraderie. Yet the modest capacity of the ochoko also helps to ensure that the sake is enjoyed at the right temperature, with the rest of the rice wine being kept chilled or warmed in the tokkuri.

(Related: Age young wine faster in tenmoku ceramic cups)

Photos courtesy of Atomi

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