For 2,500 years, the Japanese have been making and drinking sake, a type of rice wine brewed from fermented rice. Throughout all that time sake has become as Japanese as rice itself; a characteristically dry drink used to mark special occasions or celebrate a quiet night with friends, with rituals, traditions, and rules of its own. It can be clear, cloudy, or strong- and likewise can be drunk in a multitude of ways. Here, a few tips on how to begin.
Sake can be drunk in two ways: with a short clear glass or a square wooden cup, called a masu cup. Originally, masu cups were small square wooden boxes used to measure rice portions in Japan during the feudal period. Cleverly, most masu are made of hinoki or cedar wood, which have natural antibacterial properties to keep food and drink fresh. Today, masu are lid-less and traditionally used to drink sake in special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, or weddings. The wooden masu cup is said to complement traditionally brewed sake, since it's brewed in wooden casks. They also carry a woodsy, clean scent as an added touch, and can be used as a container for the short glass or by itself as a cup.
In most celebrations involving sake, a glass is placed inside the masu cup, over which the host will pour sake until it overflows into the masu like a waterfall. The overflowing is an act of kindness and generosity by the host to show their appreciation for your friendship (or, in a restaurant setting, for your business). It also works as a little act of celebration, to lift the spirits and to enjoy the present state of life. Watching the sake overflow and not knowing whether it will tip over presents a beautiful moment of suspense, when time seems to almost slow down. By introducing this moment of suspension, this ceremony keeps your mind in the present moment, focused only on the beautiful waterfall of sake. And ceremonies, like any other ritual, come with rules.
Some Rules to Keep in Mind
- If you're drinking with company, the sake should always be poured for you, and vice versa.
- Sake can be drunk from either receptacle, though it can certainly be drunk from both.
- Sake should be sipped slowly, like a wine. Taking a shot of sake can be like taking a shot of merlot.
- Though sake can be drunk cold or warm, drinking hot sake can actually strip the alcohol of its innately complex flavor. So, gently warm, but never heat.
How to Drink
If drinking directly from the masu, hold cup diagonally towards you with hands on two opposing corners, so that a third corner faces you directly. Hold the cup close to your face and take in the aroma of sake, which will be slightly tinged with the smell of fresh cedar. Tip back taking a small sip, and let it linger in your mouth for a moment before swallowing.
If you’re using a masu simply as a stand for the overflowed sake glass, dip your head low and sip directly from the glass like a crane, keeping the masu cup and its components resting on the table. As the contents begin to go down, you can pick up the glass and pour the rest of the sake either into the glass cup or the wooden masu, depending on what you prefer to drink from.
A popular rite during toasts, the sake pyramid consists of an even number of masu cups (the number representing one for every guest at the event) stacked one over the other in the shape of a pyramid. Before the toast, a host will pour a bottle of sake over the tip of the pyramid, first filling the top cup and then continuing to pour until the sake spills over, flowing into the rest of the cups on the base. The idea here reuses the overflowing hospitality principle above: as the top cup feeds the ones below, so does the host share his celebration and generosity with his guests.
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN