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.