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How To Drink Sake with the Right Sake Cup

| Domenic Alonge

Table of contents

Last updated: September 29, 2022.

So, you’ve poured over the incredible selection of sake at Tippsy. Your order arrives, you grab a bottle and, admiring the beautiful label, reach with delight to grab a glass from the cabinet, when — wait a minute. A cup? A glass? What glass? Shot glass? No — wine glass? You need those tiny little cups, right?

Different shapes sake cups
Different shapes and sizes of sake cups could bring you a different experience from the same bottle of sake. | Photo by Domenic Alonge.

Sake cups and sake glasses have changed over the centuries, just as the sake itself has done, leaving the modern sake drinker with a variety of cups and glasses to choose from. The size, shape and even material of your sake glass can change your drinking experience. But don’t let that intimidate you. Just pour yourself some sake and read on to learn a bit about the variety of sake cups and sake glasses that are out there.

How to pick the right cups and glasses

There are a couple of basic things to consider before choosing a sake cup or sake glass for your brew that everyone can get right, and you don’t need a sake diploma to put them into practice. First, consider the temperature. If you are drinking your sake warm or hot, stay away from glassware. Glass doesn’t retain the heat well and can be uncomfortable to hold and susceptible to breakage when heat is involved. Second, do you have a light, fruity and aromatic sake? If so, stay away from sake cups and sake glasses that have smaller rims, as these will keep those lovely aromas away from the one place they can be appreciated: your nose.

Sake cups and glasses by serving temperature

Sake wears
Some guinomi are as big as “yunomi” (Japanese tea cups). | Photo by Domenic Alonge.

As mentioned before, sake temperature is a major factor when choosing the proper sake cups and sake glasses. Now that you know to stay away from glassware for higher serving temperatures, you may be wondering what options are out there for when the time comes to heat things up. For warm sake, which is neither hot nor cold, I like a good earthenware “guinomi,” which is neither big nor small. I find that the combination of a larger rim and thick clay sides retains heat and directs the aroma nicely.

For hot sake served at above 45 C/113 F, I like to drink from a “sakazuki.” It has a shallow bowl and a wide rim with a very low volume. This means that it spreads flavor and aroma well. Also, because it doesn’t hold much sake, you have the pleasure of topping off your and your companion’s glass often, which means you’ll always be drinking your sake at a high serving temperature; the sakazuki will be empty before it has had time to cool.

Sake cups and glasses by rim

Various sakazuki cups
You may have seen a sakazuki being used at traditional Japanese ceremonies such as a wedding ceremony. | Photo by Domenic Alonge.

The rim size is another important aspect to consider when matching a sake to a sake glass. Sake cups run the gamut in terms of rim size (circumference) and thickness, so this topic can be a little intimidating at first, but there is a guiding principle to keep in mind: Narrower rim sake glasses and sake cups concentrate the flavors of sake, and wider rims spread the flavor around your palate. Narrower rims also retain aromas, and wider rims release the sake’s aroma.

In terms of sake types to match rim profiles, wide rims help show off the complexity of rich, robust, umami-driven sake. Narrow rims capture and support the flavors of lighter and drier sake styles. When I am drinking sake that is excessively light and dry, I find that a sake cup or sake glass with a thin rim and small rim size helps bring out the natural sweetness of the sake, and brings the flavors into balance.

Sake cups and glasses by material

Another angle to approach choosing the proper sake cup is sake cup material. Modern sake drinkers have a variety of sake cup materials to choose from. Most of us are familiar with earthenware sake cups and some of us may be comfortable with glass cups of the traditional or modern variety, but there are actually wooden sake cups as well as tin ones, each with their own appeal.

While clear glass allows the drinker to appreciate the color and clarity of the sake that they are drinking, colored glass brings another visual dimension to the experience. Drinking a chilled “natsuzake” (summer style sake) from a cool-toned glass can be as refreshing and cooling as the sake itself.

Owing to the rich Japanese tradition of pottery, ceramic cups and “nihonshu” (traditional Japanese sake) go hand-in-hand. Ceramic cups bring a tactile element to the drinking experience and can be flavor-neutral (porcelain) or flavor-enhancing (“bizen-yaki”). Regardless of the variety of material, ceramic cups are ideal for all temperatures of sake, especially warm and hot sake.

Various ochoko
There are various kinds of “ochoko” (small sake cups) out there. Collecting them is one of the exciting aspects of drinking sake. | Photo by Domenic Alonge.

Wooden vessels can take us back to pre-modern Japan, when sake was served in cedar “masu,” which did double duty as a measuring cup and a drinking cup. The standard size of a masu is typically 180 milliliters. While less common nowadays, wooden sake cups like the masu are instantly recognizable for their unique shape (it’s hip to be square), and their ability to enhance either the natural sweetness of the sake or the wood notes of “taru sake” (sake stored in wooden vats).

Tin sake cups can be stunningly beautiful vessels, but their appeal is more than skin deep. They can vary in shape and finish, from balanced but simple with a dull finish, to more evocative profiles with exquisite and inviting hand-hammered dimples that shimmer and diffuse light. Tin cups have the unique ability to mellow the flavor of sake, making them the favorites of “kanzake” (heated sake) fans the world over. There is no finer way to relax than by enjoying a rich junmai warmed up and poured into a tin sake cup.

Sake cups and glasses by design

You can also choose your drinking vessel by design. Sipping traditionally made sake? Reach for an old-school style sake cup like a “kiriko” glass.

Aromatic, delicate and elegant sake brewed in a more modern style are perfect for thin-walled, sculpted and modern bowl-shaped glasses. These are light in the hand and allow you to feel the temperature of the sake that you are drinking. Small, independent glassmakers — and even world-renowned companies like Riedel — have created special daiginjo and junmai glasses to accentuate the features of these sake and elevate the drinking experience.

7 types of sake cups and glasses

Sake vessel Size Recommended sake type
Ochoko Roughly 45 ml Anything goes
Guinomi 90 ml to 180 ml Junmaishu
Sakazuki Roughly 45 ml Kimoto and yamahai junmaishu
Mokkiri / masu Roughly 180 ml Chilled (“reishu”)
Kiriko 45 ml to 120 ml Chilled
Wine glasses Depends on the pour Fruity, aromatic ginjo and daiginjo (chardonnay)
Big-boned, heavier junmai styles (Bordeaux)
Rocks glasses 7 oz to 12 oz (207 ml to 354 ml) Genshu
Pourers 180 ml and up Anything goes

Ochoko

“Ochoko” are the means by which most people encounter sake for the first time. They are the tiny porcelain cups that are so hard to keep full and so fun to raise and kampai with. Ochoko come in many different materials, but what makes them all the same is their small size; they hold approximately 45 milliliters of sake. Their small size encourages sipping and savoring the brew, but also has a second purpose that is tied to the Japanese cultural trend of hospitality: The small volume of the ochoko ensures that a host will have ample opportunity to refill their cups, thus demonstrating their generosity and care for their guest.

Any sake is great to drink from ochoko, but be mindful of the fact that the small rim size will not allow many aromatics to reach your nose. Ochoko are one of the most fun ways to share sake when you have a large group of friends.

“Fubuki” Sake Set With Handbasket

The “Fubuki” Sake Set With Handbasket features two delicate glass ochoko and a matching tokkuri for pouring.

Guinomi

A guinomi is the same shape as the ochoko, but larger. The larger rim of the guinomi helps aromas reach your nose and spreads the flow of sake to your palate to bring out more complexity. The larger volume also makes it more practical in that it doesn't need constant refilling. The guinomi is also a popular form for many ceramic artists; a handmade guinomi with an uneven, highly textured surface adds a tactile and visual dimension to the pleasure of drinking sake. A sake that is best enjoyed from a guinomi is one that is as versatile as the guinomi itself.

“Hana” Tin Guinomi

Choose a well-balanced junmai that is lighter-bodied, and use the guinomi to play around with the sake serving temperature. The “Hana” Tin Guinomi, with either a flower detail or a copper finish, will make a striking addition to your collection of sake cups.

Sakazuki

A sakazuki cup is another small sake glass, but shallower and with a wider rim. Historically, sakazuki have been used ceremonially at weddings and other important events. The shape of the sakazuki cup releases more of the aroma of the sake, and helps spread the sake to the corners of your lips. This wider flow allows you to taste more of the complexity of the sake. The wide and shallow shape also encourages you to lean your head forward and slowly sip, encouraging you to enjoy the richer flavors. Any rich, earthy, umami-driven sake will stand out served in a sakazuki cup.

“Shohogama” Somekarakusa Sake Cup

This “Shohogama” Somekarakusa Sake Cup is a perfect example of a simple, beautiful and meaningful sakazuki cup to present to a guest, as the pattern painted inside represents prosperity and long life.

Mokkiri/Masu

The practice of serving sake in a cup resting inside of a wooden masu is known as “mokkiri.” This cup-and-saucer serving style has more to it than just catching the errant drop of sake, however. By serving sake mokkiri style, a host can intentionally overpour the sake so that it spills over and is caught by the masu below. This is a common practice in traditional “izakaya” (Japanese gastropubs) that is both fun and indicative of the generosity of the establishment.

Room temperature and chilled sake are typically served mokkiri style, and the narrower glass sake cups that rest in the masu are designed to focus on the flavor of the sake over the aroma. First, drink the sake from the glass, then, you can either pour the overflow sake back into the glass, or drink straight from the masu.

Hinoki Masu Small

Try it at home with this small Hinoki Masu made from Japanese cypress.

Kiriko

One of the most interesting, and definitely most beautiful sake glasses, are kiriko sake cups. Glassmaking techniques brought to Japan centuries ago have evolved to create striking glass cups that feature intricate patterns and colorful designs.

Kiriko glasses are typically smaller and tend to pair well with chilled sake. Kiriko glass is often thicker and has a comforting weight to it. The clarity of the glass shows off the clarity and color of the sake within. Colorless kiriko glasses can help create an elegant mood, and bold-colored glasses can help liven a table setting or compliment the decor.

Edo Kiriko Chirori Sake Set

This Edo Kiriko Chirori Sake Set makes a stunning conversation piece and may be used for warm or chilled sake.

Wine Glasses

Drinking sake from a wine glass is often a winning combination, although it is a relatively recent development in the sake world. As with wine, you want to leave ample room in the glass for the aroma of the sake to build up. Drier junmai sake with lots of complexity and body are often great for larger wine glasses, such as a Bordeaux or Burgundy glass. Lighter-bodied, fruity sake with crisp acidity can best be enjoyed in a chardonnay glass. And while you’re at it, why not try sparkling sake poured into a champagne flute?

The sake serving temperature trend for wine glasses ranges from room temperature to chilled. If stemware doesn’t quite fit the vibe at your table, stemless wine glasses are a favorite for the seasoned sake drinker. Just be aware that holding the glass itself will warm chilled sake, so it’s best used for sake that can also be served at room temperature.

“Karai” Kannyu

The “Karai” Kannyu glass, which comes in either a clear or amber hue, would perfectly match a fruity and aromatic ginjo sake.

On the rocks glasses

Full disclosure: I am not a whiskey drinker. But I do keep rocks glasses in my cabinet for drinking sake. Summer is the time when everyone is seeking refreshment and a way to beat the heat. Drop a cube or two of ice in a rocks glass and pour a healthy splash of “genshu” sake. Genshu are undiluted and typically higher in alcohol, thus they don’t suffer from being watered down a bit as the ice melts.

Pourers

For more formal occasions you may want to utilize a pourer to serve your sake, rather than just pouring it from the bottle. And, just as with sake cups, sake pourers are available in a few different varieties to meet the needs of your setting.

Tokkuri

“Tokkuri” are, like their frequent partner the ochoko, the most commonplace among sake pourers. The tokkuri started out originally as a storage container for sake. Eventually, they transitioned into being warming and serving vessels. They come in sizes as small as 180 milliliters all the way up to 300 milliliters in volume, and may be glass, ceramic or metal.

Tokkuri are true workhorses and are used to serve sake at all temperatures (most often hot). So widespread and popular are tokkuri that playful variations such as the “iwana” tokkuri (shaped like a fish, sake pouring from its mouth) and the “ika” tokkuri (made from actual dried squid) have emerged. Whether playful or simple, ceramic or tin, submerging a tokkuri full of sake into a hot water bath is an easy and effective way to heat sake. Learn more about serving methods by reading our Sake Guide.

“Sango no Umi” Tokkuri

The “Sango no Umi” Tokkuri evokes an undersea landscape, perfect for enjoying “reishu” (cold sake) alongside some sushi.

Choshi

“Choshi,” another type of sake pourer, might be mistaken for a tea kettle at first sight, but in spite of this humble comparison, they are often part of weddings and other very formal rites of passage in Japan. Depending on the material, a choshi could be used to heat the sake, or just to pour it. But don’t feel pressured to reserve a choshi for sacred occasions. From a practical standpoint, using a choshi ensures that the aroma and flavor of the sake inside do not dissipate unduly while waiting to be poured.

Katakuchi

“Katakuchi” differ from tokkuri and choshi in that they are strictly serving vessels and are not used for heating sake. They are notable for their simple, bowl-like shapes and open tops, which enable oxidation of the sake. Katakuchi may be ceramic, metal or lacquerware, but when handcrafted, are often sculpted into endearing shapes that evoke the beauty of nature. Using a katakuchi to serve your sake signifies that you have something special you wish to share with your friends and guests.

“Nousaku” Tin Katakuchi

The “Nousaku” Tin Katakuchi is luxurious and absolutely stunning, and deserves an exquisite sake to match its appeal.

Have fun exploring them all

Although the shape and material of specific glasses do enhance certain aspects of a sake, don’t despair if you don’t have “the perfect glass” or the “perfect pourer” to match your sake. (We just don’t recommend pouring heated sake into a wine glass.) Feel free to use what you have on hand, but also try different cups and see what you think! Every person, every sake and every cup is unique. What tastes right to you is ultimately what is most important.

Check out our sake ware to get started!

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