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The Secret to Unlocking Sake's Full Flavor: Why You Need At Least Two Cups, Not One

 

Almost every drink has its ordained vessel – the tulip-shaped curves of a brandy glass, the tall and slender flute designed for champagne's effervescence, and the bulbous, short-stemmed Glencairn glass specifically designed to for the aroma and flavour of whisk(e)y. When it comes to sake, however, allegiance seems evenly split.

In one corner, there's the traditional ochoko, a small ceramic cup steeped in Japanese tradition. On the other hand, modern brewers and sake enthusiasts are reaching for the wine glass. Sake experts don’t have a definitive answer either – the world of sake competitions reflects this division. Two of the most prestigious sake competitions, the International Wine Challenge (IWC) held in the UK and the Kura Master Sake Competition in France only use wine glasses for evaluating sakes.

 

Lineup at the Kura Master Sake Competition in France (Source: Sake International)

 

On the other hand, the Japan Annual Sake Awards, the biggest competition in Japan itself, uses the traditional kiki-choko, which comes in white porcelain with two blue circles at the bottom.

 

(Source: Sake Times)

The history of the traditional ochoko cup

 

Before we explore the logic behind it, let's look back into history and understand how the charming ochoko cup came about. These cups date back to the early Edo Period (1603-1868), when they were first used on the Japanese dining table as containers for dipping sauces and vinegars. The name choku means "a little bit". These unassuming little cups weren’t even originally meant for drinking sake!

 

The ochoko (お猪口), which translates to small sake cup, is the most common type of sake cup.

 

As brewers made more and more alcoholic sakes during the early days, the ochoko's small size became a happy coincidence. It aligned perfectly with the mindful sipping practices encouraged by Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes an appreciation for the present moment and a focus on simplicity. By limiting the amount of sake consumed at once, the ochoko invites slow, deliberate enjoyment of the sake in a mindful ritual.

This philosophy is also reflected in the design of these early ochokos, which were often hand-crafted with subtle imperfections, rough texture and asymmetrical shapes. This embodies the essence of Wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic that celebrates the beauty of imperfection and impermanence.

 

The kiki-choko (きき猪口) translates to "small cup for tasting".

 

The 20th century saw the introduction of the kiki-choko, a more modern take on the ochoko specifically designed for professional sake evaluation. Crafted from smooth white porcelain, these cups feature a distinctive element – two concentric blue circles decorating the bottom. These circles, called "ja no me" (meaning "snake's eye"), act as a reference point for assessing the clarity of the sake. When a sake drinker peers into the cup, the contrasting white porcelain allows for a clear view of the sake's colour, while the blue circles help to detect any haziness or sediment.

The history of using wine glasses for sakes

Fast forward to the early 2000s, industry professionals and experts began to explore the potential of wine glasses - fuelled by a desire to elevate the sake appreciation to the level of wine. This shift coincided with a growing appreciation for premium sake varieties, particularly those boasting bright aromas and delicate flavours.

 

(Source: John Gauntner)

 

One notable advocate was sake sommelier and sake samurai John Gauntner, who argued that sake, like wine, possesses a wide and nuanced range of flavour profiles would only be fully captured by swirling a sake gently within the rim of a wine glass. Renowned Austrian wineglass maker Riedel was also pivotal in introducing wine glasses to Daiginjo sake lovers in 2000, which helps to concentrate the sake's delicate and subtle bouquet.

  

Here's why you should be using both glasses

The best way to settle this debate is to simply try it for yourself! Pour a serving of the same sake into both a traditional ochoko and a wine glass – a white wine glass usually works well. You'll likely be amazed by how the same sake takes on a whole new character depending on the vessel of choice. It'll feel like two entirely different sakes.

 

 

Nosing from a wine glass, the sake instantly becomes a more fragrant affair. The aroma is enhanced, with more floral notes and bright fruitiness. Drinking from it, the sake itself tends to seem lighter, crisper, with more acidity.

Contrast that with the smaller ochoko. The aroma of the sake is much mellower. Taking a sip from the ochoko, the experience shifts dramatically. The sake tastes richer, the texture more rounded, sweeter and sometimes more syrupy. The focus leans toward a sense of sweetness and intensity, with less of the acidity and vibrant fragrance you’ve experienced with the wine glass.

So, why this miraculous transformation? Wine glasses are shaped to enhance aeration; as you swirl, the sake comes into contact with more oxygen, releasing those delicate aromas. The tapered rim of the glass helps concentrate them, guiding them directly to your nose. Moreover, the curvature of the glass directs how the sake hits your taste buds – a slower flow spread out across the tongue, accentuating the back of the palate where dryness and acidity are most noticeable. This highlights the lighter, more delicate side of the sake.

The traditional ochoko has no such design for aroma concentration. It delivers more sake in a single sip, so you get a more concentrated sweetness at the tip of your tongue. This could mask the acidity and dryness. The focus here shifts to the sweetness and weight of the sake, and you get a richer, more intense taste sensation.

The rule of thumb is this: the smaller the vessel, the more concentrated the flavour will seem. This is most obvious when comparing a wide-mouthed ochoko to a slender wine glass.

 

We recently attended a masterclass under Mirai Sake Hall where participants were encouraged to try the same sake using both vessels.

 

Sake sommelier Jacky Mong from Mirai Sake Hall strongly suggests that drinkers use both the traditional ochoko and wine glass for the same sake. He suggests using the wine glass first to fully appreciate the sake's aroma. After a few good sniffs, pour the sake from the wine glass into your ochoko and enjoy the taste. This way, you get the best of both worlds – the delightful fragrance unlocked by the wine glass, followed by the intened flavour experience designed by the brewer for the ochoko.

But ultimately, there's no single "superior" vessel. Both the ochoko and the wine glass have their roles to play, and the choice can depend on your personal preference and the specific sake you're enjoying.

@CharsiuCharlie