Sake Etiquette 101

For your own sake, you really should learn the rules governing the drinking of this most honourable of alcoholic beverages. Japanese culture places huge importance on politeness, togetherness and serving the needs of others before your own. There are many complicated rules with a fine line between what is seen as right and wrong.

The neighbourhood izakaya is the place to let loose after a long day at work. If you have ever spent an evening at Fukuro, you will know what we mean. But even in these dens of debauchery, there are rules that must be followed when quaffing your sake. Here are 10 rules you need to know.

1. Do Not Pour For Yourself

Sake is usually decanted into a manageable jug called a tokkuri and consumed from small cylindrical cups called ochoko. When you see that someone else’s cup is empty, it is polite to pour sake for them but do not pour into your own cup. It is considered the height of rudeness and might even produce an awkward silence. Do not worry, someone else will fill it for you.

2. Always Use Two Hands to Pour

Even if the tokkuri is very small, it is considered impolite to pour with one hand. Hold the body with one hand and the base with the other, and carefully pour out the sake.

3. Lift Your Cup With Two Hands

When receiving, it is polite to hold up your cup up in approval and support it underneath with your other hand. Nod your head in thanks and take a sip.

4. Do Not Leave Them High and Dry

Make sure to never let others’ glasses run dry. This indicates that you have not performed your duty of keeping them sated. If you see that someone else’s cup is running low, top it up.

5. Be Aware of Your Status

When the sake arrives, the lowest in status will typically pour for the highest first. This could be determined by age, job title or other social factors. Once the first cup has been poured, everyone can fill each other’s as needed.

6. If You Are Done, Do Not Finish

If you continually drain your cup thinking that it will be the last, it will be refilled. Even if you leave a little bit, it will probably be topped up, so the safest bet is to leave your cup full of sake if you don’t want anymore.

7. Pay Your Way

Traditionally, the person of highest status picks up the entire bill at the end of a session and this is still the practice in formal situations. That said, you should always be prepared to pay for your share.

8. You Do Not Have to Shoot It

It’s all fun and games at the izakaya, but in polite company, sake is sipped and savoured. The alcohol content ranges from 15-20 per cent, so it’s a dangerous game to keep downing your cup and getting it immediately refilled. Sip it like you would a cup of tea or a fine wine.

9. Ignore Rules 1-8

While etiquette is very important in Japan, rules are made to be broken. In informal situations, for example, when drinking with friends of equal age and status, you can ignore the rules and just do your own thing.

10. Raise a Toast

It is customary to raise a cup as a toast to good health and prosperity once everyone else’s has been poured. Raise your ochoko to around nose level, nod to your guests and say, kanpai.

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For more on Japan’s drinking culture, read about how Japanese whisky is taking over the world, or dive into the world of handcrafted ice, with our Japanese ice 101.

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