Why the Japanese serve sake in tiny cups - and why you should use a wine glass

Photo: Hakkaisan Sake.

New Yorker Timothy Sullivan had an epiphany a decade ago when he tried his first sake. It’s led him to spend the last decade as an evangelist for the Japanese drink made from fermented rice, running his own website, UrbanSake.com and becoming a “Sake Samurai”.

Sullivan is now a brand ambassador for Niigata sake maker Hakkaisan and Business Insider caught up with him during a sake masterclass at the Noosa International Food and Wine Festival on the weekend, to ask about the rituals of serving sake and why the cups are so small.

Here’s his explanation for the next time you find yourself shouting “Kanpai!”

“There’s a mini-ritual in Japan – it’s considered very rude to pour sake for yourself – so Japanese, when they’re having dinner with someone in a group they’re always on the lookout for the empty cup and they will grab the bottle and fill any empty cup and that is done in reciprocation as well,” Sullivan said.

“So very often the cups are smaller in size to allow for more of this ritual of pouring for the other. It’s considered an honour to pour for the other person, so the smaller the cup, the more you can pour for the other person and this is a very classic example of dining in Japan, people grabbing the bottle from the other person and filling the cup very aggressively.

“It’s very fun and very particular to Japan”.

Sake expert Timothy Sullivan. Source: supplied

But the interesting thing is Sullivan likes to serve sake in wine glasses. He argues that while sake has thousands of years of tradition, it only became a sophisticated drink in the 1960s.

“Premium sake as we know it today is really very fragrant, elegant and light. The last 50 years has seen a tremendous increase in quality and sakes have become, in aroma and body, much more wine-like than previously,” Sullivan said.

“So I recommend that people enjoy sake in a wine glass – you can really enjoy the aroma, you can enjoy the texture and you can really focus the aroma in a wine glass.

“Wine glasses are very uncommon in Japan, but in the west we’re much more free to enjoy it that way.”.

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