But before launching into a rundown of the various vessels and their many manifestations, let me first say a tad more about the “official tasting cups” called kiki-choko briefly mentioned last month. These kiki-choko are made of white porcelain, fairly thin-lipped, hold 180cc (about six ounces), and have a bright blue pattern of concentric circles emblazoned on the bottom.
Let's take a look at some of the implements and accoutrements used in the enjoyment of sake in Japan and elsewhere.
These are used in many if not most formal tastings, and have for about the past 100 years or so. The bright white porcelain allows the clear-to-amber color of the sake to be easily seen, the size allows ample room for aromatics to waft up, and the thin lip and big mouth allow sake to be well distributed about the palate, maximizing sensory input.
What of the bright blue bullseye pattern on the bottom? What function follows this form? While it is not a problem any more, long ago some sake ended up going south during storage, and becoming murky to some degree in both flavor and appearance. By looking at where the blue met the white, judges and assessors could tell if the sake was being stored properly by seeing how clear or diffused that border appeared.
A longer description of these glasses - replete with historical and cultural references and tidbits - can be found here. Also, a photo of these official tasting glasses (along with one miniature version) can be found here for those that are interested.
Interestingly enough, today in the highest level government tastings, like the National New Sake Appraisal held each spring, judges do not use these traditional glasses, but instead use rather mundane tumblers made of amber colored glass. Amber, mind you, not clear. What gives? Well, believe it or not, at this level they are actually trying to *hide* the color from the judges.
Huh? Why would they want to do hide additional sensory input? The answer lies in the fact that judges are human, and people here often equate transparency with refinement, and refinement with quality. And while this may all be very pleasing aesthetically, the truth is that whether or not sake has a slight amber color or is closer to transparent has no bearing on quality; it is all a matter of precise charcoal filtering that the brewer may or may not have chosen to use. So, in an effort to limit the human tendency of judges to ding a sake with an amber tinge, the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, and they are not permitted to see the color at all.
Learn about the "Original Sake" from Nara.
Another traditional imbibing implement is the small wooden box that holds the same amount as the official cups mentioned above, 180 cc (about six ounces). It is true that until half a century or so ago, these were very, very common vessels for enjoying sake. But back then, sake was brewed in wooden tanks, and until as late as the 40s, stored in wooden casks during shipment to your local retailer.
So serving sake like that in wood would do it no harm. But today's ginjo sake, with its generally more refined, more complex, lighter flavors and prominent aromatics, is best enjoyed out of other, less interfering materials. In other words, if you drink ginjo from wooden boxes, the wood wins, the sake loses.
Interestingly, those wooden masu were originally a standard measure for rice, and were found at every rice shop in the country to be used as standard sized scoops. And, the size of these puppies (180 ml) led to the curious bottle sizes of the sake world, 1.8 liters (i.e. ten of those boxes) and 720ml (i.e. four of 'em).
Note, too, that sometimes we can find lacquered (or plastic) version of these boxes, created to allow people to enjoy the dose of tradition while not detracting from the quality of the sake with externally introduced woodiness. Sometimes, too, some sake pubs will place a glass inside of one of these masu for the same reasons - maintaining a touch of tradition while keeping the nature of the sake intact.
Many folks have surely experienced being served sake, and having the glass not only filled to the brim, but deliberately overflowed by the pourer, from a glass into the masu, or from a cup or masu onto the dish supporting it. What's with this?
It is a traditional way of showing the customer that not only is the shop not skimping, but they are giving you your money's worth and then some, dammit. Call it "the pour of munificence" if you will, and while it can be a bit messy and unwieldy, the feeling behind it all is warm and generous.