Why are Nihonshu sold in 720 ml bottles and not 750 ml? And why in a 1.8L big bottle rather than a 1500 ml one?

In Japan, sake is usually sold in a multiple of the traditional capacity measurement units of Shaku (勺) and Gō (合).

In an Izakaya, for example, sake may be offered in Sanjaku (3 Shaku), Goshaku (5 Shaku), Ichigō (1 Gō) or Nigō (2 Gō).

The Shaku is exactly 18.0391 ml. The Gō is equivalent to 10 Shaku, therefore to 180.391 ml. For convenience, these traditional units of capacity were rounded to 18 and 180 ml respectively.

Japan officially adopted the metric system in 1891, shortly after the Meiji revolution, but the old units of weight, length and capacity remained in use. For example, the area of the apartments is still measured in tatami, just like in Canada where imperial measurements are still used alongside the International System of Units.

The six traditional Japanese units of volume measurement

In an Izakaya, unless you buy a full bottle, the volumes encountered are:

The Sanjaku 三勺 (3 Shaku [54 ml]) which is the equivalent of the standard Ochoko.

The Goshaku 五勺 (5 Shaku [90 ml]) is half a Gō.

The Hasshaku 八勺 (8 Shaku or 4/5 of a Gō [144 ml]), the volume equivalent of the classic Masu, a wooden box used to measure rice. Nowadays, the capacity of these boxes most often measures one Gō or 180 ml.

The Ichigō 一合 (1 Gō [180 ml]) = the standard measure of the modern Masu. It is the equivalent of a glass of sake or a small Tokkuri. In fact, it is the measure of one serving of rice or sake.

The Nigō 二合 (2 Gō [360 ml]) = the capacity of a large Tokkuri or Katakuchi usually shared by two people.

When you buy by the bottle, you will mainly find the following capacities:

Ichigōbin 一合瓶 (a bottle of one Gō [180 ml]), also called 酒カップ from the Japanglish “Sake Cup” when the bottle is a drinking glass.

The Shigōbin 四合瓶 (a bottle of four Gō [720 ml])

The Isshōbin 一升瓶 (a bottle of one Shō [1800 ml])

Industrial sakes are often sold in PurePak cardboard containers measuring one or two litres. Sometimes, rather than the litre, the box measures 900 ml, the equivalent of a Gogō 五合 (5 Gō) or half a Shō.

Some sparkling sakes can be bought in bottles with European capacities of 375 and 750 ml; these bottles are often European made.

Sake is occasionally sold in barrels called Sakadaru 酒樽 or Komotaru 菰樽 whose capacity is a multiple of To 斗.

Ichitō 一斗 (1 To [18 L])

Nitō 二斗 (2 To [36 L])

Shitodaru 四斗樽 (a four To barrel [72 L])

Finally, the annual production of a sake brewery is calculated with the larger unit Koku 石 (180 L).

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