Monday, May 25, 2009

Sake Vessels

In the context of wine, I think about glassware a lot. I believe that anyone with a discriminating palate can readily tell the difference when the same wine is poured into two differently-shaped glasses, and therefore, that the glass you serve your wine in makes a difference in how you perceive and appreciate it.

I haven't paid as much attention to the same sort of differences with sake, although my Japanese friends have assured me that they exist. As sake gains popularity in the Western world, it's become fashionable in some places to serve it in a wine glass rather than a traditional sake o-choko, the small, squat cup seen in this photo. The explanation, entirely plausible to me, is that the complexity and intensity of top-level ginjoshu is better expressed in a larger glass, as the tiny choko is simply too small to allow the flavors to develop properly. I always sort of went along with this—I mean, I wouldn't serve wine in a choko, so why top-quality sake?

A few days ago I was drinking an excellent junmai ginjo, the Sato No Homare (Pride of the Village) by Sudo Honke, from Ibaraki prefecture. The oldest brewery in Japan, Sudo Honke has been making sake for 850 years, and the current president of the company, Yoshiyasu Sudo, is the 55th generation of his family to occupy that position. Needless to say, they've learned a thing or two about making sake by now.

The Pride of the Village has been one of my favorite junmai ginjos ever since I first tasted it almost a decade ago. Made entirely of Yamadanishiki, Japan's most renowned variety of sake rice, it's polished to a ratio of 50 percent, which seems to give it finesse while retaining just enough guts and stuffing to let you know that it's real ginjo, not ginjo that secretly wants to be daiginjo. Although it's reasonably dry (nihonshudo of +3, if you want to know), it's quite fruity in flavor, with notes of pearskins and guava above the more savory nuances such as snap peas, green lentil and aniseed that lurk underneath. It feels full in body and dark in tone, possessing a brooding, virile energy and subtly complex detail.

At least that's how it tastes in the o-choko.

I poured it into a Spiegelau wine glass for comparison, expecting the aromas to blossom and the complex flavors to further emerge. While it's true that there was more presence of aroma in the wine glass, it took on a completely different character, turning more grain-like, rice-y, almost like Rice Krispies. It also felt heavier—there was more of it, but it was less focused and less harmonious. On the palate, it turned into a startlingly different beverage, and while I'm already well-accustomed to expecting changes between different types of drinking vessels, even I was shocked at how dramatic the sake was altered between these two. Not only did the flavors change, turning more savory, saline and even bitter in the wine glass, but the texture completely changed as well, feeling soft, blowsy and a little soapy. Returning to the choko, the sake felt much more vibrant and lively, with a taut, upright structure and a longer, cleaner finish.

I'm not saying that all sake would behave this way, mind you. This is only one experience. But it's given me a whole new respect for the o-choko, not to mention an increased interest in experimentation.

5 comments:

Cher Hawrylow said...

Hi Peter. Am enjoying reading your blogs. Just to note...there are 2 types of sake cups. The Ochoko you've mentioned and the other is Guinomi. Apprently, one point to take into consideration is the rim of the vessel. The thickness, texture and curve will affect how the sake will distribute itself across the tongue and palate. Hence comletely affecting the taste profile and fragrance!
Kampai. Cher Hawrylowv

kalimama said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for this article. This is something that I have been going back and forth on for years...

At first, I used to serve sake in the Riedel riesling glass. Somehow serving sake in a wine glass declared its value at the table in the US - that it was ok to drink it because we treated it like wine. But in that glass, it just gets totally lost.

Then I tried the spirit glass, the port glass and now I have the Jerez glass. Admittedly, I have never tried them all side-by-side with the o-choko. I also have issues - at least where I work - about throwing down ceramic cups as vessels for beverages. I guess to me, it would be as if we were to offer chopsticks: we are not an Asian restaurant and somehow adding them would diminish the value of the hashi (chopsticks) and o-choko. It's nice to offer different vessels, plates, utensils, but not out of novelty - it has to make sense.

Linda

Peter Liem said...

The Jerez glass is a really interesting idea. I've never tried that before, but I will. I understand about the novelty thing—getting an o-choko in a Western restaurant might be a little weird.

kalimama said...

...especially if you're in Basque country Spain. Let's face it: if I can get people interested in sake - and LIKE it - then I am ahead of the game already.

Russ Margach said...

That's actually pretty interesting. So now that you know that, what about the little wooden boxes? What's their role?