Sake is a traditional Japanese rice wine and — just like wine that’s made from grapes — there are special rules around how you should drink it.
The Japanese have been savouring sake for millennia but Australians only started sipping sake as recently as the 1980s. As a new wave of hip sake bars and Japanese restaurants spring up on the streets of Sydney, discerning diners and foodies are now learning how to drink sake.
The perfect serving vessel
In most Japanese restaurants (izakayas), sake is served in a sake set, comprising a carafe (tokkuri) that holds up to 360mls and a small cup (ochoko). Sake sets can be made from glass, earthenware, metal or wood — but ceramic sets are most commonly used. Some izakayas also serve sake in square wooden cups (known as masu) that can hold up to 180 ml. The masu was originally used to measure the sake volume.
The perfect temperature
Some types of sake, such as junmai and ginjo, are served chilled, between 4°C and 10°C. But most sakes should be served warm. To warm your sake, first preheat the empty ceramic sake carafe (tokkuri) by dipping it in a bowl or saucepan of boiling water. Once the carafe is hot, pour your room temperature sake into it, straight from the bottle. Then place the filled tokkuri back into the bowl of boiling water for two to three minutes, until the sake temperature reaches the optimum temperature of 40°C.
The perfect pour
In Japanese culture, a one-handed pour is considered impolite. So make sure you hold the tokkuri with both hands when you serve the sake. Custom dictates that the host should serve their guests first and then one of the guests should serve the host — pouring your own sake is considered rude. And when your sake is being poured, hold up your ochoko with two hands — sit the cup on your left palm and hold it in place with your right hand.
The perfect sip
When you are dining with a group of people, don’t sip from your ochoko until everyone at the table has been served — this is how to drink sake the polite way. And finally, once everyone in your party has a full cup, you should all say “kanpai” — this is the Japanese equivalent of saying “cheers”.