The Only "Rules" on Glassware
People always ask, "what is the best glass for sake?" The good news is that so many different kinds of glasses and cups work well, and you do not need to go out and buy anything special--whether you own a restaurant or just want to enjoy sake at home. Chances are (very high) that you already have quite a few different glasses and cups that would work very well. There are a few rules you should follow, though. The first is using ceramic cups for warmed sake and glassware, of some kind, for chilled sake. You do not need one kind of glass for one type of sake and another for another type. The other rule is to use clean glassware that is not stained by red wine, especially. You should also avoid, at all costs, wood boxes (masu). Masu are fine when finished in a way that fully covers the wood. However, the ones that are exposed wood will taint the flavor and aroma of the sake. Even the ones that are finished should only be used with glasses, as we will explain below.
Why The Small Cups?
When people think of sake "glassware," they think of little sake cups with a bull's eye blue and white marking on the inside. These are called "o-choko." While they will suffice for warmed sake, they are not ideal by any means. There are larger versions of these cups called "kiki o-choko." These come in a large or medium size. These are excellent for tasting sake and are THE sake tasting cup used in authentic sake competitions. They are great because they allow some swirling and because the white and blue rings allow you to see the color extremely well--the contrast helps with that. They can also be used for a range of temperatures. However, the little cups that have made their way to the U.S. are not ideal and rarely found in sake bars in Japan. Stemware is also unusual, though emerging, because, in olden times, Japanese wore robes with long, dangling sleeves. These could easily knock over glasses. Japanese design style is also very low to the ground: thus, the lack of stemware before Western influence.
What is the Best Glass-for Chilled Sake?
When you go into a sake bar in Japan, you will usually be presented with a tray of different kinds of glasses. These are often hand-crafted from different sources. They are in various shapes and sizes. These are wonderful and the choice is a great part of the sake experience. Some sake experts think that white wine glasses are good and they do provide the advantage of more swirling and releasing of aromas; however, you can just as easily smell when sake is right up next to your nose, as it is with a small cup. Also, not ALL sake is so high in aroma. In fact, sake experts often categorize sake as being "high aroma" and "low aroma" type. There are various discussions, and disagreements about the merits of aroma and food pairing, as well. Lastly, on small cups, they go hand-in-hand with carafes. We LOVE carafes. Carafes increase sharing and trying more sakes. Variety and experimentation is one of the joys of sake.
What is the Best Glass for Warmed Sake?
Ceramic cups are best. Small is good and warmed sake is very aromatic. So, you do not need to swirl. The release of aroma is one of the benefits of warming. There are also different sizes and shapes of small cups. Wider and more shallow cups will make the sake wash through your mouth more "broadly," hitting more tasting points. A narrower cup will hit your tongue. They are both great and you should try and see the difference!
So, What is the Best Way to Serve Sake?
We like the way you will find sake served in Japan at an Izakaya, or sake bar. At an izakaya, your server will bring you a glass in a finished box, plate or bowl of some kind and pour the sake into a tallish glass so it overflows into the bowl or plate. This is a sign of generosity and good will. You then sip off the top of the glass, pour the overflow from the plate or bowl back into your glass, etc. It is fun and authentic. It also allows you to SEE the bottle. The only disadvantage with carafes is not seeing the bottle. However, even in a sake bar you can either ask for this or they may fill your carafe at your table too. Maybe.