Make sure the glass is never empty (and other rules for sake)
The concepts of courtesy and hospitality infuse Japanese culture — from elegant tea ceremonies to dinner-table etiquette (for example, saying Itadakimasu before you eat to show appreciation for the meal and its ingredients). So, it’s no surprise that sake has its own set of “rules,” which are followed to express appreciation for the brewed rice wine as well as your host and hospitality to your guests.
“If I have to pick one serving rule: you do not pour for yourself in Japan,” says Etsuko Nakamura. A Sake Samurai, an Advanced Sake Professional certified by The Sake Education Council, Nakamura leads tours of sake breweries around Japan (www.saketours.com) and works for the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association in Tokyo.
“Your guests should never have an empty glass and you shouldn’t pour for yourself,” says Mariko Tajiri. “It’s a gesture of hospitality and respect. If you ever go to Japan, have Japanese guests or have a Japanese boss, make sure their glasses are never empty!”
Tajiri is the National Brand Manager for That’s Life Gourmet, a boutique sake and wine agency. She’s completed her WSET training for wine as well as being certified as an Advanced Sake Professional through the Sake Education Council and the Sake Service Institute. Recently, she took on the role of VP of Knowledge and Education with the Sake Institute of Ontario (the people behind events like Kampai Toronto and the Toronto International Sake Challenge), where she plans events and teaches future sake lovers all about this unique Japanese brew.
Serving comes with its own set of cultural and traditional rules, the first of which is, as Tajiri and Nakamura mention, is to never pour it yourself. The second is never letting a cup run dry. That “cup” is usually an ochoko, which, according to Tajiri, can look different depending on where you are in Japan because “there are regionally traditional tableware styles throughout Japan.”
“Different types of sake vessels will definitely affect your experience. The shape and texture of the glass or cup will impact how you enjoy aroma and flavour,” Nakamura says. “In Japan, you often see sake served in a small ceramic cup or glassware. Sake with a big flavour can work well with a thick pottery cup. Outside of Japan, wine glasses would work very well. Enjoy light and aromatic sake in wine glasses with a thin rim.”
However, you can enjoy sake just as well from whatever glass you have in your cupboard. “I personally recommend using a wine glass like an ISO so that you can nose and taste sake like you would with wine,” Tajiri says. “My grandfather drank out of his tea mug that could probably fit half a bottle!”
Pouring sake is an art in and of itself, one that requires two hands and a pleasant smile. (Okay, maybe not the pleasant smile, but I think after a sip or two of sake, you’ll be smiling anyway). To serve, you hold the tokkuri (or “bottle”) in the middle using your right hand. Then, you place your left hand on the side of the flask — “to be polite,” Nakamura explains. But presumably it’s also to steady the flask so you don’t spill all over your guest.
Speaking of your guest, they are also participating in this quasi-ritual. Those receiving sake should lift their glass or ochoko, also using both hands — one hand holding the ochoko and the other under the bottom. “This is to show respect to the person pouring sake,” explains Nakamura.
It is also customary because the size of tokkuris make them difficult to pour. “When someone is pouring for you, you should lift your glass or ochoko,” Tajiri mentions. “Especially when it’s an isshobin [1.8-litre magnum bottles], it’s super difficult to pour into a glass that’s on the table … do your server or sommelier a service and lift it up.”
As with wine, beers and pretty much every other thing you might want to taste, sake follows the look-sniff-swirl-taste pattern. Nakamura gave me the breakdown: “For sake tasting, you often see sake in a white porcelain cup with two blue circles inside the cup. Check the colour first. Then, you check the aroma. Sip and taste. See the colour and clarity of sake by using the blue concentric circle in the bottom of the sake cup as a measure. Swirl the sake cup gently, so that the aroma of sake is rising from the cup. Breathe in the aroma. Sip the sake. Spread it over the surface of your tongue and taste it. See if it is rich or light flavoured. Is it mild or dry? Exhale gently through the nose and smell the fukumi-ka scent.”
Now, proper etiquette on the host’s part is to always pour for you and ensure your glass never runs dry. But what do you do if you don’t want any more sake? This depends on the situation you’re in. “If you’re in Japan, in a business environment, I would try to avoid saying no to more sake,” cautions Tajiri. “Just drink slower.”
“However,” Nakamura adds, “if you cannot drink sake any more, simply say, ‘Thank you, but no thank you.’”
When you’re out with friends, it’s not a big deal to say “no.” In fact, when you’re in a casual environment, just enjoying sake, shake off that fear of not following proper etiquette and just enjoy. “The traditions and gestures are certainly nice and we should respect them. But no one is going to penalize you for not knowing them, or not following them too closely,” says Tajiri.
“Take a sip. Even when the cup is small, it is not a shot glass. So, no ‘bottoms up,’” Nakamura says. “Enjoy the sake. Also, enjoy the sake with food and see how well it pairs with different type of cuisine.”
Following the customs and etiquette helps you enjoy the cultural and traditional heritage of this beverage, but you’re not going to be shunned by the masses if you pour with one hand, forget to lift your glass or drink it from a mug. In fact, sake etiquette is changing, too.
“These ‘rules’ are also being challenged and adapting all the time,” Tajiri states. “I had an 80-year-old Chairperson of a very well-known sake brewery tell me that she thinks that many of these rules, like not pouring for yourself, are silly in this day and age … I think the lesson here is to not overthink sake and enjoy it as you would any other drink.”
The end goal is enjoyment and the ancient traditions help to serve that goal. “It is a way to show hospitality, but more than that, it is great way to start a conversation, or to enjoy the time with people you are drinking with,” Nakamura adds. “I would not worry too much about etiquette for drinking occasions, formal or informal. When in Japan, I think one rule to remember is to serve others. But when you share some sake with Japanese people, you’ll soon find them pretty relaxed about the pouring rules.”
Like wine, beer and spirits, sake has its own language — and I’m not just referring to Japanese! Here are the common words you’ll find on the labels and in your sake journey.
Bottle & Container Sizes
Issho-bin: 1.8 litre
Nigo-Tokkuri: 360 ml
Shitodaru: 72 litres
Ichigo-Masu: 180 ml
Choko: smaller porcelain or ceramic cup; typical sake cup you’d see around
Masu: wooden, box-like cup
Sakazuki: flat, saucer-like cup
Guinomi: usually larger and made of porcelain or ceramic
Tokkuri: ceramic serving flasks
Katakuchi: bowl-shaped vessel with a mouth for pouring along the rim
O-choshi: long-handled vessel used to pour sake into cups; also called choshi
O-toshi: pre-meal snack served at a restaurant; also called saki-zuke
O-hiya: water served at a restaurant
Yawaragi-mizu: water chaser served with your sake