An often overlooked aspect of saké tasting and enjoyment is the selection of glassware. The style of the drinking vessel has a definite effect on one’s saké-tasting experience.
A lot of folks assume that the “proper” way to drink saké is from the small wooden boxes called masu that they see at sushi restaurants. The masu were originally a standard measurement for rice in Japan, and the 180ml volume they hold is called a go. Since masu were readily available, they eventually came into use as drinking vessels (often with a pinch of salt placed at one of the corners) in saké pubs throughout Japan. The go unit of measurement eventually became the standard on which saké bottle sizes are based, as well. The reason the standard saké bottle size is 720ml, instead of a wine bottle’s 750ml, is because it holds four go (in Japanese, yon go bin), a convenient amount if you’re going to split a bottle with a good friend (“Two for you, and two for me!”). The “big boy” 1.8L bottles hold the equivalent of 10 go. Ten go equal one sho, so those “magnums” are referred to as issho bin, or a “one sho bottle.”
When saké was brewed and stored in wooden tanks, drinking saké from a masu was perfectly appropriate. However, for the last 80 years or so, most saké has been brewed in stainless steel tanks, allowing the brewers to pull forth an amazing variety of fruity and floral flavors and aromas from their saké. Drinking from a wooden masu would not do any of these more delicate characteristics any favors.
Saké drinkers today have a terrific variety of drinking vessels to choose from. If wine glasses are what one has at hand, they are a perfectly good choice for enhancing a saké’s fine-tuned flavors. Smaller traditional ceramic o-choko can be fun, too, especially if you’re sharing a tokkuri flask with friends. One reason these cups tend to be small is because in Japan you never pour your own drink, and the concept behind the smaller volume is that one’s companion would empty his glass quickly, necessitating frequent refills and thus solidifying the bond between the drinkers. Drinking saké is a social sport, after all.
Another unique saké drinking vessel is the white ceramic kiki-joko “official” tasting cup. These wide-mouthed, thin-lipped cups are used by brewers to assess the quality of their saké, with the bull’s eye pattern (in Japanese, it’s called a jya no me, or “snake eye”) in the bottom of the cup allowing the taster to see the color and clarity of the saké. The wide opening allows you to get your nose in there and enjoy the aromatics, while also facilitating a good distribution of the saké across the palate.
Enjoying saké is a tactile, sensory experience, so having a drinking vessel that feels good in your hand and is pleasing to your eye are qualities worth considering. It’s all about exploration and experimentation. Finding the right glass for the right saké is a pleasurable pursuit.