Any alcohol in Japan is generally referred to as Sake. However, unlike recreational drinking in most countries, drinking sake is a bit more complicated. It requires the host to know everything from the temperature of the sake, to the appropriate manner of pouring. Most Western countries do not practice the traditional way of sake drinking, however, authentic Japanese restaurants do not neglect to observe the traditional practices of serving and drinking sake.
Correct serving temperature
While many shows and movies on television will create the idea that sake is hot wine, only some kinds of sake are heated before serving. The finest kinds of sake like Ginjo are best served a little bit chilled. Ginjo is a very fragrant rice wine but is only delicately flavored. Rice wines with more body like Junmai are better served at room temperature.
Oftentimes, only low quality sake is heated because heating usually destroys the higher quality ones. If it becomes necessary that you heat it, the best serving temperature would be around 40-45 degrees Celsius.
The cup to use when drinking sake is also dependent on the reason for drinking – whether it’s for recreation or for actually tasting the sake. If you are going to drink it with the purpose of enjoying it for its flavor, a customary wine glass would be best. Wine glasses are specifically made for the purpose of allowing one to taste a wine’s flavor in pure form.
On the flipside, if you are interested in an authentic Japanese feel, there are plenty of customary cups to choose from when drinking sake. The most common one is the ochoko, which is a small rounded cup with no handle. Some prefer the masu and sakazuki, which are both also traditional Japanese cups for recreational drinking.
Serving the sake
When serving sake, it is important that you pay attention to the status of your company. Normally, when pouring sake, you must hold the tokkuri, the serving jug for sake, with both hands. You can either use both hands on the tokkuri or with the right hand holding it and the left hand on your right arm. Only when your present company is a subordinate will pouring sake with one hand be appropriate.
Likewise, when your cup is being filled, you are supposed to lift your cup with both hands – either with both hands on the cup or with the right hand holding the cup and the left hand supporting the cup from underneath. And in the same sense, if the host is a subordinate of yours, it is acceptable for you to hold your cup with only one hand.
One other thing is that if you are the host, it is crucial that you do not fill your own cup. Traditionally, guests will make it a point to ensure that the host’s cup is filled. On the other hand, when guests offer to fill your cup as a host, it is not polite to decline. So if you do not want to drink a lot, you must take only small sips of your sake so there is no need for your cup to be filled.
The Japanese counterpart for “Cheers!” is “Kanpai”, so you can call out kanpai and touch cups with company. Again, if you are drinking with subordinates of yours, such as employees, mind that your cup is slightly above that of theirs.
And when drinking sake, if you are drinking with someone of higher status than you, it is considered polite for you to turn your head away from company as you drink.
Drinking sake is a common customary way for the Japanese to tighten bonds with each other and create camaraderie. This is a tradition showing the cultural heritage of the Japanese that has been passed on from generation to generation, and makes the experience worth trying at least once.