Sake has continually maintained its place as the country’s quintessential libation of sophistication and good taste. Often referred to as “rice wine” overseas, the fermentation process taken upon master sake craftsman is much more akin to brewing a fine ale than fermenting grapes for wine. Like wine, however, there are an endless number of lesser-known craft labels, each with wholly unique flavors and complexity that often cannot be found in foreign markets. To truly understand the art of sake, you must come to Japan—but even then there is much to learn before taking the first sip.
Containing only about one third of the acidity generally found in wine, sake offers a subtle, delicate flavor that varies based upon the temperature it is consumed. For those new to sake, the first suggested tasting temperature should be warm sake, known in Japanese as okan. By heating the sake, the sweeter tones become more pronounced as well as offering a smoother mouthfeel.
The second way to enjoy sake is at room temperature, known in Japanese as hiya. This traditional tasting temperature is a perfect choice for premium sake labels known for their supple flavors and aroma.
The final tasting temperature, known in Japanese as reishu, is to savor the sake slightly chilled, which allows the complex flavors to emerge, much like a fine white wine.
Understanding the Differences in Sake Cups
Born from a culture of presentation, the diminutive Japanese sake cup requires as high-quality of craftsmanship as that of the sake it holds within. But beyond its artistry, the cup must also function to enhance the flavor, aroma and experience of savoring sake. Typically, the preferred method of serving sake the world over is with small, cylindrical glassware or stoneware cups known interchangeably in Japanese as guinomi or ochoko, and are available in traditional ceramics, etched glassware and modern designs.
Another popular serving dish that has become an iconic symbol of traditional Japanese celebrations is the box-shaped vessel known as masu. When made from an aromatic wood like the Japanese cypress, a masu cup can impart a unique flavor.
The third style of sake cup, known in Japanese as sakazuki, can be considered one of the culture’s oldest, most traditional ways to consume sake with its unmistakable silhouette featuring a shallow dish-like vessel that is popular at Japanese ceremonies such as weddings. When drinking with a sakazuki cup, it is preferred to use both hands when bringing the rim of the vessel to the lips.
Understanding Sake Etiquette
When enjoying sake—whatever the cup it is served in—it’s important to be mindful of one’s manners and etiquette, especially on occasions when drinking at a Japanese restaurant. Friends and family—and, moreover, the restaurant’s chef—will be most appreciative of those who know and follow a few simple rules.
Take care not to scratch the sake cup
The glassware and stoneware sake cups used at some restaurants in Japan are often quite old or very valuable. By removing any jewelry from the hand that may come into contact with the cup, especially rings, you ensure that the cup will go unscathed from any scratches that may result from the harder materials of the jewelry.
Lift the cup as the sake is being poured
Unlike wine glasses, which should be left on the table when poured, sake cups are to be lifted. It is suggested to use one hand for holding the cup while using the other to support from underneath. In addition, as a sign of respect it is customary in Japan never to pour for oneself, especially in a public setting; so when presented with the opportunity to refill a friend, family or associate’s sake cup, please do not forget to let the sake to flow.
Follow a cup of sake with a glass of water
Lastly, while not necessarily a matter of sake etiquette, Chef Miyashita suggests following a cup of sake with a glass of yawaragi mizu—literally, “water that softens”. Because sake is typically stronger in alcohol content than wine, having a glass of yawaragi mizu helps to temper the effects of sake for a longer, more pleasurable experience.
Pairing Japanese Sake with Cuisine
For those living outside of Japan, often the first encounter with sake is when it is paired with Japanese food such as sushi. While sake’s gentle flavors lend well to most any form of traditional Japanese cuisine, there is no limitations to including it as an accompaniment to Western fare either. Savory cheeses and artisanal breads are but two complimentary suggestions to consider. You will find that even in Japan, Japanese-style pubs, known as izakaya, frequently pair sake with fried chicken and other Western import cuisine.
For those looking for a uniquely Japanese sake-food pairing, shiokara is a Japanese delicacy that pairs excellently with drier varieties of sake. Made with seafood such as sea urchin, oysters, or squid fermented in salt, shiokara has a fishy, salty, and slightly spicy flavor that compliments the crisp, clean taste of premium Japanese sake.
In addition to sake-food pairings, regional garnishes are becoming more and more popular, such as orange peel or lime. If visiting Hokkaido, you may even find sparkling sake served with a slice of lemon.
Whether Novice or Expert, a Trove of Opportunity Awaits the Ardent Sake Lover
When it comes to sake in Japan, you may find yourself lost in a sea of restaurants, each featuring a myriad of brands on display in storefront windows. Fortunately, Savor Japan can help in your quest for the perfect sip by presenting only the best of Japan’s epicurean restaurants, like Fushikino in Tokyo. Whether you happen to be searching for sake in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto or beyond, stay with Savor Japan for the best in food and drink.
Disclaimer: All information is accurate at time of publication.