December 2008

Ask Beau - "Why do you use three glasses to taste?"

Posted by Beau Timken in 2008, Ask Beau, December, Newsletter

Man - we had 28 solid questions this month to choose from but I like this one the best because it touches on a couple of important points about sake and it's "effectiveness" in conveying the who and what each brew is and can be to each of us.

And coincidentally enough, this was my first question from a reader in the Great Plains of Nebraska. Trevor H from Omaha wrote:

"I saw a video about you and you were drinking sake from three glasses and talking about it. Do you like to drink or is there more to it?"

Well Trevor that depends entirely on which video you saw me in. Were there piñatas and scantily clad folks jumping under a pole limbo- style? If so, then yes I like to drink. If the video had me rolling quarters down the length of my nose trying to bounce them into the furthest of the three glasses then that was a vintage video of me back in college - at least I think that I went to college.

More than likely it was one of several videos that shows me professionally reviewing a sake. Yes, as my mother is a reader those must be one of the videos that you are referring to. (I hope - Mom, go to bed!)

I have been charged with the responsibility of conveying what resides in a bottle of sake to those who might care or may be pondering dropping some serious coin in the process. In this light I try to be as accurate as physically and physiologically possible. Ask those who taste with me - I am a total bitch when it comes to trying to grasp the meaning of each and every sake that I review. I feel that I must honor the effort - the pain and passion - that the brewers put forth in liquid form. It is my duty and honor to really try my best to understand each sake that I review so that others will be in a better position to make a judgment call on whether or not to purchase that sake or try it on a menu.

There are many in the business who pick on me for taking my time and microscopic focus to such a level - I will rarely taste a sake that a distributor brings by for a quick taste and departure. This does not do justice to that sake. Sure I can taste balance and quality instantly, but some sakes speak at different levels. Some are shy and must open up - usually they have a lot to say - and likewise some come out very confident and then fall apart in the end. A swish and swirl can accurately judge a sake, but when I review a sake I need to go far more than foreplay. I must nail that sucker! (Did I just write that?) (Repeat - Mom, go to bed.)

So Trevor in several of these videos or TV shows I usually will taste an individual sake out of three sizes of cups/glasses etc. I will usually add an O'choko to the mix. This is the "prototypical" sake cup that comes with hot sake in it! Trust me - you've seen them. I use this vessel because there are still a ton of consumers out there who think that you must use this size of cup when drinking sake - even $120 Daiginjos. It is the default drinking cup for the sake industry bred from the reinforced sake pouring rituals of days gone by, but still finds a home in modern day sellers of sake sets from Pottery Barn etc. So many folks have these sizes of cups in the cupboard.

The second size cup that I use can best be described as an "Izakaya" (sake pub) style glass that looks like a sawed off water glass or better yet and Italian table wine glass cut in half. (Roughly 4 ounces) And lastly I will use a white wine glass. Three different mouth shaped vessels, three different surface areas, and three different aroma-making funnels.

Why? Because my theory is that if I tasted strictly out of one glass then I will never capture the aromas, flavors, and movements found in the other glasses, which may be the glass that you use. If I only use a small cup, I am throwing all of the acidity on the tip of my tongue. If I use a wine glass it spreads this acidity out through the sides and back of the mouth. If I use a mid-sized vessel then I capture both directions in feel and flavor push. The temperature of the sake also differs in each cup; this could replicate a person holding the cup in their hands, warming the sake unknowingly. One reviewing vessel is like test driving all cars on one strip of race track from here to there - a minivan, or an off-road 4X4 - a "Smart Car" or Hummer - a golf cart or a Ferrari. If I tell you that the Smart Car is horrible on sheer crumbling shale hills, it says nothing about how well it does on a city block.

By using three separate vessels I can blend the review to at the very least capture some generalities that presents themselves in each of the three glasses. I will also have better ammo to say to the consumers that this brew does better in a larger vessel, and this one really excels in a more compact drinking chamber. Sake is a booze, and like most boozes the acidity is the first and last thing to enter and leave your palate. So how that acidity moves dictates so many different elements in the understanding of a particular brew. Size does mater in sake, just like beer and wine.

I once did a tasting for one of my very dear importer friends where I poured him the exact same sake in 9 different vessels including a huge glass vase for flowers - he has a professional palate and he thought that I poured 9 different sakes. My point is that we all do not have a standard sake glass, so why not bank on the differences one can uncover by trying sake in several different shaped glasses and ceramic cups.

Lastly Trevor - if your see the video of me with 5 different glasses, a large audience, and notice that I am absolutely naked - run for your life.

Please send your sake specific questions to askbeau2 @ (This address is not for general questions and I only review the questions once per month. All other correspondence should use info @

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