O-toso: New Year’s Sake – A drink on the day keeps the doctor away

It is a rare occasion and ceremony that does not include some sake in Japan, and that harbinger of renewal, New Year’s Day, is no exception. Although sake figures prominently in O-shogatsu (New Year’s) celebrations from morning to night, opening the year with a prayer for health in the form of drinking O-toso is perhaps the most interesting.

Just what is O-toso? It’s sake that has been specially prepared by steeping a mixture of herbs in it for several hours. Drinking it with family in ceremonial fashion first thing on New Year’s day is said to ward off sickness for the entire year ahead, as well as invite peace within the household.

The tradition of O-toso originally came from China, and originally the mixture consisted of eight herbs. Things have naturally changed slightly over the years, and some of the herbs have changed as a couple in the original concoction were deemed too potent. But most remain true to the original recipe.

Included in the mixture are cinnamon, rhubarb and sanshou (Japanese pepper), as well as a few not commonly seen in the west, like okera (atractylodis rhizome) and kikyou (platycodi radix). It’s stuff you never knew you needed, much less existed.

O-toso was adopted in Japan back in the ninth century during the reign of the Saga Emperor in the Heian era. Back then, on December 19 of each year the herbs were placed in a triangular bag and hung from the branch of a peach tree hanging over water. At four in the morning on New Year’s Day, the herbs were put into sake and steeped for several hours before being partaken of in the morning.

During the Edo era (1603-1868), the custom became common among common folk as pharmacies would give out the O-toso mixture (known as O-tososan) to patients as year-end gifts. This practice continued to some degree until about 20 years ago.

The custom has evolved into a fairly ritualized form over the years. After morning greetings on O-shogatsu, the O-toso is drunk using a special set of three lacquered vermillion cups sitting on a small dais. The three cups fit inside each other, and are drunk from in order of size: small, medium then large. It is poured not from a normal sake tokkuri, but from a special vessel resembling a kyusu (teapot).

The O-toso is drunk in order from the youngest in the family to the oldest with the intention that the older members of the family can share in the joy of youth imparted as the cups are passed.

Drinking O-toso is said to ward off infectious diseases like colds for the year. Folklore dictates that if just one member of the family drinks O-toso, everyone in the family will be free from illness. If the entire family drinks it, the whole village will remain free from illness for the year.

Making it at home is easy, provided you know where to go and pick your wild bekkatsu (smilax China), bofu (ledebouriellae radix) and uzu (aconite root). Combine those with the five mentioned above and you’re golden.

A simpler solution if you happen to be in Japan, or near a Japanese food store outside of Japan, is to go and pay just a wee bit indeed for an elaborately packaged teabag of O-tososan. On New Year’s eve, stick that puppy in about 300 ml of sake and let it steep for seven or eight hours. It will be ready first thing in the morning.

It is also possible to use mirin (a kind of cooking sake), which has less alcohol, or a mixture of mirin and sake. While this may make it taste a bit sweeter, the taste of O-toso made with good sake is not bad at all. A bit medicinal and slighter bitter, perhaps, but interesting.

Also, should guests visit during the first three days of the new year, they are first given a glass of O-toso, and after that a glass of sake.

As is the fate for many traditional rituals, the O-toso ceremony is not as commonly practiced these days as it has been in the past. Many younger people, in fact, may not know all that much about it. Although all things run their natural course, it would be a pity if O-toso were to totally fade away.

Those not in Japan should be able to find the O-toso teabags at drugstores or grocery stores in Japanese neighborhoods.

Another common type of sake enjoyed at New Year’s time is taru-zake. Like O-toso, taru-zake is not a brand of sake, and almost all brewers make some. Taru-zake is made by taking regular sake and letting it sit in a taru, or wooden cask for (usually) a couple of days. It then takes on a fairly strong and pleasant cedar taste and aroma. While this usually overpowers any subtler flavors and aromas (which is why premium sake is rarely used for taru-zake), it can be very enjoyable and tasty.

Just after New Year’s Day, when people gather for traditional year-opening ceremonies in communities, families and companies, taru-zake is often the sake of choice. Very often, taru-zake is enjoyed from the small wooden boxes called masu, and with a pinch of salt in one corner.

For those outside of Japan, both taru-zake and masu are available if you poke around. At least in North America, one recommended brand of taru-zake is Ichi no Kura from Miyagi, although at least one domestic brewer makes some as well.

Be it O-toso, Taru-zake, or something else, all the best to everyone in 2013!

There are still a couple of seats remaining open for the Sake Professional Course in Japan, the most thorough sake education on the planet. Five days of sake bliss: learning, tasting, eating and visiting breweries. Held in Tokyo with a trip to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area. Learn more at http://www.sake-world.com/html/spcjapan.html


Sake’s True Colors

Most sake is, when we get it, close to transparent. But it was not always this way, and that statement is meant both in terms of one given sake, and sake in general over history.

When sake is first born, i.e. separated from the rice lees after a month-long fermentation, it has a lovely light amber tint to it; in fact, some just-pressed sake can have almost a green tint to it that is indeed truly beautiful.

However, sake is soon stripped of that via charcoal filtration. Active powdered charcoal is mixed into the sake (temporarily turning it ink-black!), and when that is filtered out it removes the coloring aspects to some degree, as well as some rougher flavors. This is a surprisingly precise operation, and can be adjusted fairly minutely. It can also be overdone, not surprisingly.

Why is this done? Because color in sake somehow, sometime, somewhere along the line became associated with something less than full purity and freshness. Shame, that. To be sure, sake does take on color as it ages, but the presence of color does not necessarily indicate age or roughness. Not at all.

Has it always been this way? Heaven’s no. It all began, goes the word on the sake-street, about 40 or 50 years ago in Niigata, and soon caught on all over the industry. And to be fair, there are some sake out there that are not charcoal filtered, and as such proudly display that goldenrod luster. Such sake will often (but not obligatorily) have “muroka” (unfiltered, slight misnomer though it may be) on the label. Muroka, for our intents and purposes, means “not charcoal filtered,” and usually will maintain the original amber-green-goldenrod tint. It’s natural, and its beautiful.

There are still a couple of seats remaining open for the Sake Professional Course in Japan, the most thorough sake education on the planet. Five days of sake bliss: learning, tasting, eating and visiting breweries. Held in Tokyo with a trip to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area. Learn more at http://www.sake-world.com/html/spcjapan.html 

Lauding Toji

Giving credit where credit is due!

Recently, I read an article that came to me mysteriously by email about how winemakers in general deserve more attention and credit. The article suggested that too often folks fall in love with terroir, i.e. all that connects a wine to a certain place, and as such that the role of the person who actually called all the technical shots along the way gets downplayed, and that that shouldn’t be. The gist of the article was that hundreds of decisions are made between grape and bottle, and that deserves to be recognized and appreciated as well.

Which got me thinking: what about toji? Does the master brewer at a sake brewery get the credit that he or she deserves in creating a great sake?

Very often, perhaps as often as in the wine world, the person that guided and influenced the process gets very little attention or credit. It goes to the rice, or the generations of great sake that forged the reputation of the brewery, or sometimes even the region in general f’gad’s sake. Rarely, or at least not often enough, does it go to the toji.

So: Does the toji matter? Hell yes, the toji matters!

Long ago, the toji mattered, arguably, even much more than today. Back in the day, kuramoto (the brewery owners themselves) rarely even entered the brewery. And when they did, it made the brewing staff antsy, it did. “What’s he doing in the kura? He doesn’t have any business in here!” But things have changed.

Remember, back in the day, most toji brewed fairly close to home, and had but one style to aim for (the local one), and was pretty much stuck with local rice. But all that has changed. These days, toji might travel very far from home. The rice they use might be from anywhere, and brewers have a much bigger market at which to aim than the local yokels. Often, the kuramoto (the brewery owners themselves) dictate what is to be brewed, and the toji just complies. Either way, the toji is making gazillions of decisions about each fermenting tank every day.

In fact, in these modern times, there are more or less two ways of coexisting: one in which the kuramoto leaves it up to the toji and stays out of his way, and the other in which the toji brews up whatever is ordered by the kuramoto. Both are alive and well and living in Japan.

And let us also remember too that more and more often those two are the same: the
kuramoto is the toji, owner-toji as they are called. As tough as this can be, it eliminates a lot of problems. (Assuming schizophrenia is not part of the equation, of course. But I digress.)

The interesting if unrequested article that came to me also touched on the concept of manipulating wines, and my own reading on that subject indicated that the jury is still out on how much or how little of this is acceptable. But it again got me thinking.

While surely the same argument can be had for sake, at least to some degree, even the most un-manipulated sake has the bejeezus manipulated out of it from start to finish. The rice is milled, soaked, steamed, molded, mixed and forced to temperature. Water is added as needed, alcohol might be added, and the mixture is pressed at the end. Each of these manhandling steps has myriad aspects that combine to become part of the aforementioned gazillion decisions.

Having said that, any toji will tell you that he or she doesn’t really make sake per se, they just prepare the ingredients, create as an ideal an environment as possible for what they want to accomplish, and get out of the way. The sake brews itself, with a mind of its own.

Does a toji manipulate a sake? Hell, yes! Does it matter? Hard to say!

One owner of a somewhat large brewery once shared with me his thoughts on a what makes a great toji. After several glasses of some of his own fine hooch, he got down to the truth.

“You know what makes a great toji? I’ll tell ya what makes a great toji! Forget this gold medal stuff. Forget the prizes. Gold, schmold! Give me a person who year-in and year-out can deliver consistent quality of sake, the same stuff no matter what happens. No matter what the rice is like, no matter how warm the winter is, no matter what major piece of equipment breaks down in the peak of the season, no matter what personality conflicts he has in his team, and no matter who gets sick when… he still manages to brew consistent, dependable sake! Now that is a great toji”

So yes, in the final analysis, toji make a huge difference and should be lauded much more than they are.

Do some get attention? Yes, mei-toji (famous toji) have always been a part of the industry, and there are a handful that are recognized as such. A few have even been designated by their local prefectural or the national government as famous craftsmen or even intangible cultural assets. But still, not as many as one might think, and certainly not as many as are deserving of such recognition.

Why does this not happen more often? One reason is that they are a humble lot. Traditionally, toji were happy to stay in the background, being masters of their realm was enough, and even those with tyrannical streaks could be tyrants in that slice of their universe. Traditionally, they were not meant to be the “face” of the sake; that was the kuramoto’s job. To the outside world they were just doing their job.

But this is all changing, and so I say yes, let us make a bigger deal of the toji, and a more personal deal out of them too. They deserve it.

There are still a couple of seats remaining open for the Sake Professional Course in Japan, the most thorough sake education on the planet. Five days of sake bliss: learning, tasting, eating and visiting breweries. Held in Tokyo with a trip to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area. Learn more at http://www.sake-world.com/html/spcjapan.html