In the US, sake is often served in delicate little cups, sized to afford a scant few sips at a time. But in Japan, sake isn’t always so precious; many everyday varieties are packaged in single-serving cups, often aimed at train commuters to drink on the go. “It’s the equivalent of grabbing a can of beer,” says Christy Shibata, co-owner of Asazu, an izakaya and sake bar in New York. “The individual serving size is the draw.”
Sake-in-a-cup is sold all over Japan, with the workaday Ozeki One Cup, which debuted in 1964 (the year that Tokyo hosted the Olympics and commercial operations of the bullet train began), still the most widely available. “During my last visit to Japan, I remember being mesmerized by the wall of colorful cup sakes at a convenience store and buying my first Ozeki cup from a vending machine,” says Bryan Masamitsu Parsons, the beverage director at Kemuri Tatsu-Ya in Austin. “They’re fun, collectible, portable, and convenient.”
In the past, Shibata explains, cup sakes in Japan didn’t always contain the highest-grade stuff, though as their popularity has increased at restaurants and izakayas here in the US, she says, that’s changing. But saving the cups themselves is still mostly an American phenomenon; while they’re not generally considered novel enough to collect in Japan, they delight diners stateside. “There’s something to be said for adorable packaging, which the Japanese have mastered,” says Lindsay Ansai, sake advisor at Momotaro in Chicago.
Which is why some bars and restaurants encourage diners to take the empties home. Here are eight cup sakes from bars and restaurants across the country that you can add to your collection today.
Nishinoseki Daruma Cup and Akishika Junmai “Bambi” Cup from Asazu, New York
As co-owner Shibata explains, sake cups are often released for certain events or seasons, or in honor of specific regions. “The Bambi cup comes from Osaka, which is known for having a lot of deer. This sake is a little drier, and well-balanced; I pair it with lighter sashimi-type foods,” says Shibata. “The Daruma is one of the higher-end cup sakes, made from a pure rice blend. It’s a little sweeter and fuller-bodied, pairing well with heavier foods, like chakonabe (stew) on a winter night.” With over 15 cup sakes on their menu, Shibata does encourage guests to take the cups and start their own collection. “We give people mini takeout bags so they can try a few, stack them up, and take them home.”
Miyozakura Junmai “Panda” Cup from Ivan Ramen, New York
The Panda cup, one of Japan’s most charming, was released to celebrate the Tokyo Zoo’s acquisition of its first pandas. “The cuteness factor definitely drives sales,” says Cat Brackett, general manager. “It’s our top-selling sake. We serve it cold, as it’s very fruit-driven and floral on the nose. To be totally honest, a rice lager or pilsner is usually more suited to ramen, which is basically salt, fat, and carbs — sometimes when you pair that with a more intricate beverage like a sake, its nuances get lost. But because the Panda is such a full-bodied sake, it holds up well.”
Otokoyama Tokubetsu Junmai “Namacho” Can, aka The Woodpecker from Naoki, Chicago
At Naoki, the cup sake menu rotates often (they currently have six), and general manager Bill Powell says they become “a great conversation piece for the table. A more serious sake drinker might get a rare bottle, but people who are new to sake or just looking for an everyday drink love the cups.”
The name, Namacho, refers to the “nama,” or unpasteurized style of sake, which are not typically aged. “The Woodpecker is light, crisp, delicate, and yeast-y, almost like steamed rice,” says Powell, adding that it pairs well with sashimi and nigiri. The design depicts a type of bird found only in Hokkaido, where the brewery is based.
Nihonsakari Onikoroshi “Demon Slayer” Sake Box and Kikusui Funaguchi “Red” Nama Genshu Can from Kemuri Tatsu-Ya and Ramen Tatsu-ya, Austin
Cups are cute, but boxes take it to the next level. “Sake served in paper juice boxes with straws — I mean, come on!” says Masamitsu Parsons of the Demon Slayer boxes, which he serves at Kemuri Tatsu-ya. “The packaging is fun and nostalgic, everyone loves the name, and the sake is dry and smooth.”
Keep an eye out for seasonal releases, he adds: “We currently have the Shiboritate ‘Blue’ Boxes, which is a style of sake that is fresh off the press and not aged.” At Ramen Tatsu-ya, he rotates through various styles of the Kikusui Funaguchi cans, an extremely popular brand in Japan. “These were the very first canned nama genshu [sake] on the market, and they’re flavorful, boozy, and fun. You can get them in Gold, Red, Black, or Green, with different colors represents different styles or techniques.”
Bushido “Way of the Warrior” Ginjo Genshu Sake Can from Momotaro, Chicago
Named for the ancient Japanese samurai code laying out moral values of loyalty and honor, this can depicts a fox (representing the god of sake rice) in full-on warrior mode. This undiluted Genshu-style sake is at cask-strength level, making it a bit boozier, while still tasting nicely balanced. “It has more juicy fruit notes on the nose, which reminds me of a Jolly Rancher,” says sake advisor Lindsay Ansai. “That gives way to an awesome chewy texture, one that’s almost thicker on the palate, making this smooth and very satisfying to drink.” If customers decide to leave their used cans after dining, says Ansai, the restaurant repurposes the empties for candle holders.
Chiyomusubi Oyaji Gokuraku Junmai Ginjo Sake Cup from Izakaya Ronin, Denver
“Oyaji Gokuraku is known for the silly and striking artwork on its cans,” says Dustin O’Connell, Izakaya Ronin’s general manager. “The artist drew a series of pieces for each of the sakes in the Chiyomusubi brewery’s lineup; this eyeball is on several of their cans. Oyaji Gokuraku translates roughly to ‘Heavenly Father,’ and one of the other sakes from Chiyo Musubi called Kitaro Jungin has a similar label with a character from Japanese folklore named Kitaro who is missing an eye. The similarity is more conceptual than anything, I think, but I do know that the Oyaji is a crisp, slightly dry sake that has a particularly fresh and bright flavor.” Like Momotaro, Izakaya Ronin saves the empty cups to use for candles if — for some strange reason — they get left behind.