Food & Drink | KANPAI CULTURE

It’s not what’s in the glass of sake, it’s the glass itself

by Melinda Joe

Contributing Writer

People often ask what kind of glasses are best for enjoying sake. But, like so many things in the sake world, the answer is complicated. My shelves are crammed with dozens of sake vessels — from dainty, thimble-sized cups, to rough-surfaced ceramic tumblers and pieces of crystal stemware.

Traditional ochoko are small sake cups that typically hold only a few mouthfuls of the beverage, a design feature intended to encourage social interaction through frequent refilling by one’s companions. Ochoko are made from a variety of materials, all of which affect the overall experience of the drink, and my choice varies depending on the situation.

Though porcelain versions are the most common, at the height of summer, I prefer sipping cold sake from cooling, transparent glass vessels. And, in the chilly winter months, I often opt to serve warmed sake in hefty pewter cups that can better hold the heat. Another option — cups made from hinoki (Japanese cypress) — imparts a subtle woody aroma and can complement the earthy, forest floor notes found in certain brews.

Glass shape, however, has the greatest impact on sensory perception. A glass with a tapered rim concentrates the bouquet, while a wide-mouthed vessel disperses aromas and softens the sensation of acidity. Minor tweaks in the shape and size of the bowl change the speed and flow of the beverage across the palate, altering mouthfeel and finish.

Few understand these principles better than the Austrian glass manufacturer Riedel. The company has been crafting glassware tailored to accentuate the characteristics of different styles of wine since the 1950s. In 1999, Riedel introduced its Daiginjo Glass, the world’s first glass designed for daiginjō — the highest grade of premium sake, which typically exhibits delicate fruity and floral aromas and flavors.

The company released its second sake-specific vessel in April. The new Junmai Glass was created to enhance the “layered and umami-rich flavor profile” associated with full-bodied junmai, or “pure rice,” sake (a category of brews made without the addition of distilled alcohol), and matured styles, says Riedel Japan CEO Wolfgang Angyal.

To develop the design, the glass makers conducted 42 workshops with 170 brewers and sake experts, who whittled down the choices in blind tastings of more than 120 styles of junmai-style sake from across Japan. In contrast to Riedel’s Daiginjo Glass, which features a tulip-shaped bowl and a closed rim, the Junmai Glass resembles a Champagne coupe outfitted with a pointed, diamond-shaped base. The unique shape, Angyal notes, “controls the flow so that the liquid stays on the tongue, highlighting the sake’s velvety texture.”

I recently visited the Riedel boutique in the Aoyama district to test the new glass. Sampled first in a standard ochoko, Tamagawa Yamahai 2015, a powerful aged brew from Kyoto Prefecture, tasted slightly flat, with sweet and bitter notes rising to the fore. When served in the Junmai Glass, the sake relaxed, displaying gentle woody aromas and notes of caramel and honey. The presence of the alcohol receded, allowing the sake’s subtle minerality and grain character to shine. The glass’s most notable effect, however, was on the sake’s texture, which became creamy and supple.

“I believe that this is how brewers want to present these kind of umami-laden styles,” Angyal said.

I soon began mentally rearranging my shelves to make room for more sake glasses. Really, one can never have too many.

Riedel Japan’s sake glasses can be found at www.riedel.co.jp.