Tasting starts with the election of the beverage, and the friends to drink it with. That is usually what requires most anticipation.
Then follows the choice of the drinkware, an empty skull, a pewter tankard, a delicate Bohemian glass, a makie cup (lacquered with motifs drawn in gold powder)….
As a matter of fact, every vessel starts stimulating one’s senses in its own way: weight, temperature, color, odor (for wooden cups), contact with the palm of the hand or the fingers.
The beverage is poured, and one focuses its attention on the interaction between the liquid and the vessel: bubbles, tears, legs, color, transparency, temperature…
Comes the time to bring the vessel closer to the nose and check the aromas, the orthonasal evaluation: the vessel’s shape dictates if it can be shaken, put in rotation … or not, as well as the selection of esters and other aromatic compounds that will be captured and stay, for a while, above one’s detection level.
Soon enough the mouth wishes to have its own experience. To get the beverage to the tongue and palate, does one need to lift the chin? What sort of shape do the lips need to take, small purse, or relaxed like a large smile? Where on the tongue is the liquid hitting the sensitive buds first?
From that point, the process is common to all vessels, performed with more or less intensity: oxygenating the drink while spreading it through the mouth, swallowing, judging the flavors through the back of the throat (the “retronasal” evaluation), appreciating the aromatic length … or the vanishing of the flavours like pure clean water…
In the world of premium wines, extensive research has taken place, aiming at selecting the shape of the tasting vessel that arguably enhances the idiosyncrasies of each terroir best … to the point where one feels guilty about not using the proper vessel and not bringing the wine to the “right” temperature. With few exceptions, such vessel is a tulip shaped transparent glass with a stem, and the host will know what is required. Who will dare experiencing something else?
In contrast, but without opposing them totally, the sake culture still encourages the amateur to follow his/her mood, intuition or experience, and select the vessel within a large range of possibilities, including wine glasses, whose shape is definitely fit for the most aromatic sakes.
Indeed part of the fun starts with being charmed and hesitant like a bee in front of a colorful flower bed, taking different drinking vessels in hand, weighing them, hearing their stories and origins, before the bottle is presented.
There I was, drinking with Akiko S. at the 2018 autumn sake flea market in Tokyo, where Tada san, a kanzakeshi (warm sake “sommelier”), had teamed up with an upmarket antiques business to offer a unique tasting experience to their patrons: a cup of warm sake in a truly old sake vessel. I felt excited already choosing my favorite one, holding the venerable pieces in hand, with the perspective of using one of them soon. Akiko selected a small, smooth ko-imari cup with blue glaze under cover (“sometsuke”), i.e. an early imari porcelain ware from the Arita region in Kyushu Island. I selected a 2,500 years old Chinese earthenware cup. Tada san poured a Junmai Ginjo sake from Masu Izumi in Toyama Prefecture, warmed to Atsukan temperature (40~45 degrees). At this temperature, this ginjoshu tastes dry and reveals a strong umami making me salivating.
I was however not prepared to the surprise of experiencing how the same sake tasted different in the 2 vessels. It tasted distinctively sharper in the imari porcelain ware, rounder and deeper in the rougher ceramic cup: two expressions of the same sake.
I won’t be able to repeat the experience with these two precious cups which I resisted buying, however this Junmai Ginjo from Masu Izumi is readily available (I even saw some in France actually), at a very reasonable price. Why not try on your own?