Japan Times Archives – 2001, John Guantner

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2001/08/05

The perfect shape for sake

By JOHN GAUNTNER

The question of what vessel to use when drinking sake is an important one. Not only do the shape and size affect how flavor and fragrance are presented and emphasized, but the appearance and feel of a vessel also influences the overall experience.

The boundless world of Japanese ceramics offers striking visual and tactile adjuncts to the sake experience. But since sake shares many qualities with wine, at least in terms of how it can be appreciated, wine glasses should receive at least some consideration. Glass-maker Riedel has done more than that by created a glass especially for daiginjo.

For those readers not familiar with the name, Riedel is an Austrian company making glassware tailored for particular beverages, especially wine. Their design principle is “the content determines the shape.”

The way Riedel determines the ideal shape and size of a glass for a particular drink is by gathering people from around the world who actually make the beverage in question, as well as those who know it very well. Everyone then tastes from dozens of different shapes and sizes of glasses and weeds out the best candidates.

Late in 1997, Riedel was approached by Fukumitsuya, a producer in Ishikawa Prefecture. Although the Austrian company had previously considered making a sake glass, the plan had been abandoned because the idea of what constituted good sake was too diverse within the industry to achieve any consensus. This time, though, the decision was made to focus on daiginjo, as its aromatic nature seemed to be equally appreciated everywhere.

So began the ambitious process of selecting one glass that the industry and consumers would agree made daiginjo taste its best. Initially, they began with about 60 shapes, reduced this fairly quickly (with the help of a panel of experienced sake-tasters) to about 30, and then narrowed those down to 12 that were fairly similarly shaped. Five panels of professionals and producers from all over Japan further halved the contenders to six glasses, from which a final panel mostly made up of daiginjo producers selected one glass.

During these various tastings, the participants were asked to focus on only taste and smell. This was no mean feat, as sake from a stemmed wine glass did not resonate with many of the participants.

Interestingly, however, the glass shape that finally won had consistently scored the highest marks by about the same margin over other designs at all the tastings throughout the process. Such consensus is comforting.

After all that, though, the winning glass doesn’t look like much — in fact it’s a lot like a chardonnay glass, with its bowl size and rim diameter only slightly different. But in the tasting tests — in which I, too, participated — it was clear that the finer qualities of a fragrant daiginjo are indeed maximized when using this glass.

Granted, you may not always want to work that hard. You may want to relax a bit and not focus every ounce of consciousness on your sake. You may prefer the stony feel of a chunky piece of pottery. That is fine; but should you choose to maximize the extravagance that daiginjo can offer, the Riedel daiginjo glass will definitely help you do so.

The glass is fairly widely available (at Tokyo Hands, for one), and retails at most places for 3,000 yen to 3,500 yen. The nice package also includes a photo of the labels of the dozen brewers that helped in the final selection.

Fukumitsuya Mizuho (Ishikawa Prefecture)
Yamahai-shimomi junmai daiginjo

Fukumitsuya has been around since 1525. Mizuho combines an elegant and lightly fruity nose with solid underpinnings and a crisp backbone.

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