Sure, the world of sake is new and mysterious to most of us. Japan’s national beverage is made of few ingredients but there are many styles and each one has its own history and its own character. We are being offered a wider range of sake in Japanese restaurants but it’s a shame that non-Japanese restaurants are not aware of the Sake Buzz, the sake wave of appreciation.
There is one variety of sake that has always intrigued me, one with a very pronounced flavour – of wood. No, not the taste of knotty pine nor the richness of mahogany (although I have never had a chew of either of those). Here we are talking cedar and that taste is there for a reason which dates back centuries.
Let’s put this into historic context. Until the beginning of the 20th century sake was stored and transported in wooden barrels made of Japanese cedar called sugi. It was only when it reached the sake shop that it was put into ceramic vessels. These vessels can still be seen if one is lucky enough to visit a sake brewery, many of which have been plying their trade for more than a dozen generations.
Taruzake sake (also called Taru) is the name of this distinctive style of sake. It is aged in casks or barrels called ‘taru’ from which it gets its name, but these days the sake stays in wood for only a couple of weeks and then it’s bottled in glass. It isn’t exported in wood as it takes too long in transit. Any longer aging than a couple of weeks impairs the delicacy and produces a sake which has overpowering flavour and aroma. The iconic barrel is usually made of cedar wood and is different in each region but cedar grown in the Yoshino district of Nara is considered the most prized for the job. The wood imparts a distinctive light smoky cinnamon scent and flavour which is quite unique and which I find rather pleasant.
Taruzake is a very popular drink in Japan on New Year’s Eve. It is essential at every kagami biraki cask-opening event. The fourth Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna (1641 – 1680) is thought to be the first one to hold this lid-breaking ceremony. Before going to war he gathered his daimyo (feudal lords) at his castle to break open a sake barrel. The battle was won and so this colourful tradition was started and is seen at various celebrations and auspicious occasions.
A traditional kizuchi (mallet) is used to break open the lid of the small and ornate cask. These casks and associated accoutrements can actually be hired for events. For smaller gatherings an extra barrel bottom is fixed half way up so as to reduce the quantity of sake within. A hishaku (wooden ladle) is used for dipping into the sake cask and pouring the taruzake into a square masu. These are traditional wooden boxes which were originally used to portion out rations of rice. The word ‘masu’ means growth in Japanese, and so these boxes or wooden cups are also symbols of good fortune.
Taruzake is delicious when paired with smoked fish and robust meat dishes, but surprisingly it works well with creamy cheeses. I was introduced to this combination at a cheese and sake pairing event with Kiko Ito who is a cheese adviser. Here we tasted Taruzake with Burrata cheese mixed with Crème Fraîche garnished with Japanese soy sauce and wasabi. Masterful!
The weather is cool so an ideal time to sip a sake which has warming notes on both the palate and the nose.