As sake sommelier Gaku Shibata popped the top off a glass of Ozeki sake, he reminisced about how this was his first alcoholic drink back in Japan. The co-owner of New York’s new Japanese pub, Azasu, Shibata has curated a list of imported whiskies, beer, shochu and sake—specifically a wide array of traditional and adorably packaged cup sake.
Cup sake, which comes in individual servings, can be a bit tricky to find in the US but Gaku and his wife and business partner, Christy Shibata, are out to change that. With hopes of converting “a new generation of sake drinkers,” they offer 20 varieties. According to the Shibatas, sake is starting to be considered an “old man drink” in their native Tokyo, with younger consumers gravitating toward wine. Enter Americans to pick up some of the sake slack. And cup sake could be just the thing that will encourage them to do that.
There is a cup for every palate, price range and aesthetic and, once you start drinking it, a “collect them all” attitude about the cups begins to take hold. In my first experience with cup sake, taking home a unique cup felt similar to finding an exciting toy in a very grown-up Happy Meal. The Shibatas say they love it when customers leave with a couple of glasses. Here, some of their coolest cups.
Ozeki (“Champion”), $8
This is the very first cup sake, dating to the 1960s. The flavors are simple and straightforward and each cup has an image of Mount Fuji or Kabuki theater viewed through the inside.
Akishika Bambi (“Bambi Deer”), $15
Along with “Panda,” this is one of the cutest cups. The cup itself looks like it could belong to your five-year-old niece, assuming your five-year-old niece is allowed to handle glass. And the sake is so smooth and light in body that you’ll barely notice it’s almost 15 percent alcohol. (Related: 10 Low-Key Cocktails for Day Drinking.)
Miyozakura (“Panda”), $11
The other sake that will make you very giddy. Like Bambi, Panda is light and smooth, but with a more dominant rice flavor.
Fun fact: Panda was specially created to celebrate the first pandas to arrive in the Tokyo zoo from China.
Dokan Yamahai (“Mr. Dokan”), $15
Yamahai sake is fermented with natural-occurring yeast, resulting in a funkier, meatier drink.
Ohmine (“Mountain Skyline”), $18
A crisp, sweet daiginjo sake. Daiginjo is a higher-quality and more labor-intensive method of sake brewing, hence the price bump. But the hip cup doesn’t hurt either.
Kikusui (“Chrysanthemum Mist”), $12
This draft sake can’t be exposed to light, hence the can. It’s also the biggest on the menu as far as ABV, coming in at 19 percent.