Sake Bummer - The "Fair Pour"
As I have a difficult stopping this ongoing mass of inertia I would like to create another sake section for this Newsletter and I have aptly entitled it "Sake Bummer." This segment will focus on events, happenings, trends, and anything else that hurts my sake industry for whatever reason.
I deliberated about filing this under the "Sake Bummers" category, but in the end decided to because I kept finding myself saying "bummer." And what is said bummer? The long answer is restaurant alcohol margin making techniques. The short answer is the "fair pour."
I could get in a lot of trouble for revealing mark-ups on alcohol in restaurants, but most of you are adults and probably know the dirty deep and dark secrets of "sticking it to the consumers." It is a biz right? They do provide a service and we do pay for it. But for some reason sake and the pouring of sake has fallen prey to even higher mark-ups than let's say wine! Again, this is not a crime and restaurants readily depend on good booze sales to stay in business, as food-only margins don't pay the bills.
Sake falls sideways on the radar screen because of its historical small pour! Little cups means little pours and when you get a slightly bigger glass (ala a shot glass) we feel that this is about right! Well for today's brews it is not! I always say - do you like drinking your white wines out of a shot glass? (But this piece is not about the performance of how a sake drinks out of certain vessels, rather it is an economic discussion that has the markets hanging in the balance.) As we are trained to think small in terms of glassware or cups, we do not get our fair share when it comes to pouring sake. The restaurants know this is and disguise the fact with nice little sake pourers or even the old ceramic tokkuris that make you feel as if you are getting a larger quantity.
I will stop here and say that not all sake serving restaurants fall into this "cheater" camp. In fact most don't, but many do without knowing it! (Right!) So without calling anybody out or naming the guilty or highlighting the sake saints, I will now talk about a fair pour of sake. Think 4-ounces as a minimum pour! If you are getting just a shot glass or just a glass with the bottom being tapered and the top more fluted as the pour of sake then you are getting screwed! At the most this is a 3-ounce pour. At the most! If you are paying more than $8 for one of these pours then please call your local law enforcement agency!
Now many of you at this point are "hmmmmming" to yourself and asking "what about the glass in a wooden or lacquer masu (box) of sake?" And yes you should make that correlation because that is the exact glass that I am speaking about! By itself it is a 3-ounce pour! But wait! Tadah add the masu for show and you get the overflow which servers are trained to pour and this adds about one more ounce (historically to show you that the owners are overjoyed with the fact that you are at their restaurant and they want to welcome you with abundance.) So adding the three-ounces in the let's call it the fluted glass and the one ounce of overflow then you are looking at 4-ounces! And again this should be a minimum pour at the very least!
What sucks is the fact that the masu itself was supposed to be the guardian of the "fair pour." Way back in the day these magical wooden boxes had two main uses. One was to mask or aid the course flavor of sake by adding a little cedar chase! The second was actually to produce a "fair and accurate" pour as the masu represents a form of specific measurement. Masu and other similar (larger) wooden boxes were used to measure rice - fill it, level it off and sell it to a customer! They knew exactly how much rice they were buying! Think of cups, but only square and wooden! Well at small Izakaya and other drinking establishments customers felt that they were being cheated by the proprietors pours and ceramic wares so they asked to be served using a masu! Smart people, smart consumers! The typical masu holds 6 ounces, which is important because one "Ishobin" (the huge bottles of sakes - think magnums) holds 60 fluid ounces and this translates to 10 masu per Ishobin. Likewise the smaller wine-sized (almost) bottles are 24-fluid ounces and this equates to 4 masu per 720ml bottle. So when you see a sake bottle think 4 masu per bottle and when you see the very large bottles think 10 masu per bottle.
But wait again! Why are we only getting at the most 4 ounces in our six-ounce masus? Well you will have to ask management! Ironically the best "fair pour" system in the business is now disguising one of the least equitable pours going! You have a couple of choices here. One - just say "whatever" and enjoy yourself as "everything happens for a reason." Two - say "hey I like drinking out of my masu - that cool feeling of drinking out of square - and enjoy yourself. Three - tell your server to skip the masu and little glass and pour into their white wine glasses instead. (At this point they will say that it will cost extra to fill-out the pour for wine standards and you should ask why? Then say "no please just give me the same pour that you would in the fluted glass and masu" - then watch as they do give you a little extra because it highlights the rip-off if they do not!)
In San Francisco the heath department is placing a ban on wooden masu. They say that it is a cleansing issue/health risk and restaurants are no longer allowed to use them or hold them for customers. (They can use boxes once and then they must be chucked!) This rule is starting to get enforced slowly and is sort of a bummer in and of itself. I know some people who bring their own masu to a restaurant! Point being this very historical symbol of the sake industry is changing. In one sense I am saddened and yet in another I am glad that at least it is making restaurants look at other vessels for serving sake. For example one place that I know pours all of their sakes into martini glasses and the pours are huge!
So be wary my dear friends. Sake should be poured in the same capacity or nearly as much as wine. There are many tricks out there playing on our sense of sake history that are masking the "weak pour," and it is up to you as the drinker to enjoy or demand a new experience. The sake pouring world needs a swift kick in the pants and your are just the people to do it!