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If you’re a fan of Japanese cuisine, chances are you’ve had the opportunity to sip sake and toast “Kanpai!” (Cheers!) with friends. “Sake” means “alcoholic drink” in Japan, and elsewhere, “Japanese rice wine,” while Japanese imbibers themselves most often refer to it as “nihonshu,” which is literally “Japanese alcohol.” The drink is best enjoyed—and served—in the Japanese tradition. In other words, there is an art to drinking and pouring it. Hint: It does not involve dropping a shot glass full of sake into a glass of beer.
The Japan Society hosts an annual cultural celebration of sake with its “Sake Lecture and Tasting” event, and in 2020, its 23rd year, the event was held successfully online, bringing together connoisseurs of all levels to learn about the customs and etiquette of sake. Leading “Sake Samurai” Timothy Sullivan shared the “must-know” manners for anyone curious about an authentic sake experience. He also addressed awkward faux pas and how to avoid them.
“Respecting the way other cultures do things can open up whole new vistas”
To begin with, why is sake etiquette important? Mr. Sullivan shared his philosophy: “One thing I’ve always said is that sake is Japanese culture in a cup, and sake really is a microcosm of Japanese culture. I think that if you learn the etiquette, the manners, the culture of sake, you’re really studying Japan. And for me it’s been a wonderful 15 years learning about sake culture, etiquette, and manners.”
He also referenced a key learning that he picked up as a high school exchange student in Germany that has served him his whole life, which is to respect the way people do things in their culture. “I think when you learn about a foreign culture, you’re really showing a sign of respect for that culture, and you’re showing an interest in that culture. So, respecting the way other cultures do things can open up whole new doors and vistas, and I think that’s true of etiquette as well.”
“Wa,” a concept in Japan defined as “promoting peaceful unity or conformity within a social group,” plays a key role in sake etiquette. According to Mr. Sullivan, “A lot of the etiquette and manners that you see related to sake have to do with promoting and preserving this send of wa, this sense of harmony in the group.” He also believes learning about etiquette is a simple matter of politeness and serves us well in life.
“The golden rule of sake etiquette: don’t pour for yourself”
Mr. Sullivan advised the audience that if there is one thing they take away from the lecture it is this: Never pour sake for yourself. “Many of you might have heard this before, but this is a golden rule. It’s considered impolite to pour sake for yourself.”
This art of pouring for others, called “O-shaku,” developed as a sign of respect to other people. Mr. Sullivan described it like this: “I’m going to pour for you first—put myself in a little bit lower position—and serve you first. Japanese society can also be a bit hierarchical as well. That’s very true for businesses, for schools, and it’s true for many organizations in Japan. Pouring sake for the other people at an event or party can act as a social icebreaker. It really allows everybody at an event to interact with each other. So, if I work at a company and I’m a little bit lower on the totem pole, and my executive vice president is there, pouring sake for that person is a way that I could talk to that person even though we might not talk at the office very much; it’s a way to get people interacting, a social icebreaker, to get people talking to each other.”
The size of the sake cup is also significant: “This art of pouring for others is one of the reasons behind the small size of Japanese sake cups. So many sake cups that you see are quite small in size. And the small size allows you to give the honor of pouring to more and more people. It allows you to communicate with more people at a social event.”
“Hold the bottle with two hands”
“If you’re at an event and the sake bottle is in front of you, the most important rule for polite service is to hold the bottle with two hands.” This is similar to how business cards are presented in Japan. The two-handed approach is also used at formal ceremonies like graduation or certificate presentations. Likewise, if you gift someone money in an envelope, it is presented with two hands. “This presentation with two hands shows a sign of intention and concentration and focuses the gift on the other person.”
Another point is when pouring you don’t want to allow the carafe you’re pouring from to touch the cup. “Some people bring out their finest sake cups—these are called ochoko—for company. They could be very old and valuable, so you have to be very careful when pouring for the other person not to hit the cup itself.”
And when it comes to filling to the brim, that’s a no-no: “You may think, ‘Well, I want to give them a lot of sake so I’ll just fill it right up to the brim. But this is actually viewed as impolite in Japan because then you’re left with the sake cup filled to the top and it’s wobbling and you’re spilling on your fingers.” Whereas when the cup is filled 80% full, it can be sipped on easily without making a mess. It is polite to pour just the right amount of sake.
“Meet the person pouring halfway”
When it comes to receiving sake, “The number one important rule when someone comes to pour you sake is to pick up your cup off the table.” Mr. Sullivan recalled a less than graceful exchange at a sake dinner in Japan, with many highly certified wine people in attendance. A lot of sake was being poured and “the brewer came around the table to pour for one of the wine experts, and the wine expert kind of leaned back and said, ‘Go ahead and pour.’ And the cups are very small and quite far away from the person pouring, and he had to awkwardly lean in and try to hit the target of that small little cup. So, what’s considered most polite is to pick up the up and meet the person pouring halfway.”
There is also a trick to sipping or drinking sake. “If someone pours for you and you receive the sake and just set it down, that’s not very polite. You want to take a small sip of sake, even if it’s just touching your lips to acknowledge the honor that’s been given you, that you’ve received a delicious sake, and you acknowledge what they’ve done for you, you take a small sip and then set the cup down.”
However, be careful to not keep drinking all the sake poured for you, which can become a “vicious cycle.” Mr. Sullivan advises: “If you don’t want any more sake, you need to leave your cup relatively full. If people keep seeing your cup less and less full, they’ll keep pouring more and more. So be sure if you want to stop the pouring from happening, you want to keep your cup relatively full.”
No discussion about sake would be complete without mention of “kanpai,” which means “dry cup.” The English equivalent of “Cheers!”, “Kanpai!” is a celebratory word yelled out at different kinds of social events, from intimate gatherings to formal celebrations. Mr. Sullivan describes it as “a starting gun for a drinking party.” In fact, drinking at an event usually doesn’t happen until after the first toast. This goes back to wa, that sense of group harmony to allow everyone to “partake in the same toast, the same kanpai, and everyone can be ready.”
At informal drinking parties, said Mr. Sullivan, “It is considered polite for everyone to drink the same beverage at the first toast.” He reflected on his early days in Japan when he would go out drinking with friends. They would all order beer and he would say, “I want sake for my first drink,” with everyone giving him odd looks. In retrospect he realized he was disturbing the wa. “It makes everyone feel good when you can all share the same thing and create those good vibes for the group. So, I pretty quickly picked up on that and realized that even if beer wasn’t my favorite, for the sake of the group we’re going to all drink the same type of drink for the initial kanpai.” However, it is very common now in Japan for people to choose not to drink alcohol at work or social events. The important thing is to make a toast together at the start of an event.
So, remember to keep the wa with these tips if you are ever invited to join a traditional Japanese drinking party, and don’t forget to shout out “Kanpai!” with gusto.