In a history that spans over a thousand years, the recent era of sake has seen a higher propensity for significant change and innovation.
Up until about 50 years ago, the premium grade sake category - Tokutei Meishō-shu - as we know it didn’t exist. The arrival of technology to build rice polishing machines accelerated the introduction and subsequent growth of finely milled sake rice, introducing sake fans to aromas and flavours never before thought possible.
It was also around this time, in 1964, that One Cup Ozeki was launched, the year that Tokyo last hosted the Olympics. All of a sudden sake could be enjoyed anywhere and at any time, not least on the timely commencement of the Shinkansen high speed train operation, rather than being confined to the traditional drinking establishments pouring from 1.8l isshobin.
In 1979, sales topped 100 million cups, with 300,000 180ml cups consumed daily, many by weary suits travelling home after a frantic day working in the city. The Brewing Society of Japan awarded Ozeki the Yahachiro Ishikawa Award for its contribution to popularizing sake, rubber-stamping the one cup phenomenon.
This little cup remains today, unchanged with its broad wide-mouth rim and striking blue and white livery. For just ¥85 (HK$6) when launched for 180ml of top notch sake (that’s one ‘gō’ in the traditional measurements used for sake), it had broad appeal. Ozeki today still claim it pairs well with light and heavier foods, can be served chilled, at room temperature or warmed, and sits bang in the middle of the sweet-dry spectrum. Can’t get more food friendly than that.
Trouble is, Ozeki now has significant competition that has eroded it’s 100% market share to a mere 40%. Bad news for those guys, but great news for the consumer. In fact one cup sake has grown into its own significant category of nihonshu within which large and small brewers exist, with a growing presence of exciting regional labels.
The category has certainly shaken off the stereotype that one cup is cheap and ‘old man sake’. It’s serious stuff with some cups weighing in at a price point more representative of a 720ml bottle, with renewed demand and preference for jizake building, driven by consumer preference for more artisanal craft sake rather than automated faceless factory sake.
Yet distinctively premium options abound too, including ginjo-shu and junmai-shu, blended aged sake, yamahai method sake and, because of the packaging materials, several unpasteurised namazakes dating back to 1972’s market entry from Kikusui Sake Co.
Kikusui pioneered a namazake boom with its one cup aluminium ‘can’, full bodied yet fruity, with its undiluted contents yielding a 19% ABV punch. It’s quite rice forward, but has a little softening sweetness to it, but there’s no doubting it’s high octane stuff.
The clever bit? Well, the secret is the can itself. The sake is protected from the light by the thin aluminium surround, and Kikusui generously fills right to the brim (200ml, bonus!) to prevent the namazake coming into contact with any air and subsequently oxidising.
At the other end of the spectrum is the cute and petite offering from Ohmine. Delivering a more gentle 14% ABV in a 100ml serving, their fine Junmai-shu is light and clean, and extremely quaffable.
It’s what’s on the inside that matters, so they say at least. Well, not so much with one cup sakes and brewers know this, driving a craze of highly artistic can designs to delight the consumer, many becoming collector’s items and permanent desktop paraphernalia to house paper clips, pencils, loose change and other knickknacks.
The typographical style hasn’t disappeared, far from it, and it doesn’t get more traditional than the one cup produced by Hakutsuru, founded in 1743, whose white crane soars into the sky behind the brewery’s kanji. Their humble futsushu is delicious lightly warmed to bring out its savoury and light meat stock flavours. It’s a taste of sakes past.
Nevertheless, the old school genre is up against new cutesy promotional mascots, anime characters, historical and geographical manifestations, and all kinds of crazy in between. So a beaming Kumamon can quite easily be merchandised next to one cups emblazoned with a Hokkaido Zoo and an Akita prefecture pole lantern festival!
Zuiyo’s ‘Kumamon Cup’ is as playful as its protagonist, we get a custard cream or cream soda taste when drinking this. It’s no wonder this mascot from Kumamoto Prefecture has such rosy cheeks, one too many cups maybe!
Perhaps the greatest asset of the one cup category is that it’s a cost-effective and accessible entry point into the world of sake for the curious but sceptical consumer. Unwilling to pay out and risk a 4-gō (720ml) bottle, these little tasters give some insight into the world of sake flavours to be enjoyed. They’re also robust enough to go with most foods out there, even western dishes like barbecue and pizza.
Sake Central imports a range of almost a dozen one cups, offering a range of aromas, flavours and tasting experiences that can only convert you to a sake lover! Worst that can happen is you’ll become the proud owner of some pretty cool new desktop tidies for any bits and pieces you’ve got lying around. So, what are you waiting for, ‘Gō’ for it!
Will Jarvis is based in Hong Kong and the author behind Sake Matters, focusing on the Japanese beverage and surrounding culture. Will has previously worked for a variety of international food businesses around the world, is a trained chef and certified Sake scholar.