Aging alcohol in wood is an ancient technique, and in Japan, sugi or Japanese cedar was used to ferment and age sake during the Edo period (1603-1867), as well as to transport it to Tokyo. These vessels made of sugi are called taru. In fact, until the creation of stainless steel tanks, sugi was mainly used for sake making – thus all sake was simply taruzake.
Hauling sake onto ships during the Edo period (Image by Hakushika)
With the distinct characteristics of sugi – minty, dry, peppery – it is the quintessential “old man” sake. Thanks to my dad Kuni (an old man!), taruzake was always in my fridge growing up. He loves taruzake and when I asked him why, he said, “because it has character.” It’s not for everyone, he says, because the sugi imparts such overpowering scents. Kuni added that it’s great with very pared down, simple foods, like edamame and vegetables, but best with salt, as they enjoyed during the Edo age.
With the advent of glass bottles and invention of ginjo styles, taruzake has declined in popularity over the decades for its rustic qualities. However, taruzake continues to signify good luck and power, with kagamiwari (barrel breaking ceremony) during grand openings for businesses and sumo championships, and offerings of taruzake by sake breweries to shrines all around Japan.
Today, there is a renaissance of taruzake being made by various breweries, experimenting with techniques and uses of wood. I’m happy to have a well-rounded selection for you that ranges from the traditional (made with sugi from the Yoshino forest) to the innovative (aged in wine barrels), and proves that taruzake is no longer just for old men. In fact, taruzake is our shopkeeper and whisky enthusiast De’Andre’s bottle of choice, and he comments, “taruzake is rustic and sturdy, with history and weight to the drink.”
Umami Mart Co-Founder
Yoshino Junmai Taru Sake
Tatsuuma-Honke (Hyogo, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 70%, SMV: +3, Acidity: N/A
Since 1662, Tatsuuma-Honke has been making sake and the Hakushika brand is ubiquitous. This sake is briefly aged in a taru cask made of wood from the famed Yoshino Forest in Nara – a man-made, 500 year old forest with plantings of sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) exclusively to make taru.
Yoshino forest (photos by Miyoshino Jozo)
This bottle exemplifies taruzake in all its uniqueness, especially in the palette – it is dry, dry, dry! Enjoy slightly chilled with hiyayakko (cold tofu with bonito flakes and green onions) or slices of cold Early Girl dry-farmed tomatoes sprinkled with salt.
Rosé Barrel Aged Sake
Sequoia Sake (San Francisco, CA)
Seimaibuai: 60% Calrose, SMV + Acidity: N/A
Sake aged in wine barrels? Wow! Noriko Kamei and Jake Myrick have been making this sake since 2018, and this version was aged in a red wine barrel made of French Oak from Six Clove Wines of Sonoma.
Noriko Kamei with Sonoe Hirabayashi of Six Cloves Wines
Aged for two months, the oak adds a layer of complexity to the drink, indeed like a fine Napa wine. You’ll get the unmistakable soft pink hue and tropical fruit on the nose. The palette is light and acidic with a buttery texture. Kamei recommends this bottle chilled using a wine glass, alongside lighter fare like chicken, seafood, veggie sticks and dip.
Hanatomoe Taru Maru Junmai
Miyoshino Jozo (Nara, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 70% Yamada Nishiki, Gohyakumangoku, or Gin No Sato
SMV: 0 to +5, Acidity: 2.5 to 3.0
Taru Maru refers to the traditional technique where cedar planks are formed by hand to make the side boards for the taru. Miyoshino Jozo is dedicated to supporting the local agriculture and expressing the terroir of Nara through their
sake. Their sake is free of added yeasts, depending instead on the atmosphere to ferment their brew; and their rice is contract-grown in Nara to revitalize small, abandoned towns. To close the loop, they ferment and age Taru Maru in barrels made with wood from the Yoshino Forest.
Fresh cut Yoshino sugi (photo by Miyoshino Jozo)
Mixing the ferment in the sugi casks (photo by Miyoshino Jozo)
Moromi in taru (photo by Miyoshino Jozo)
Get an oxidized scent on the nose, reminiscent of sherry, with a peppery, creamy front end and dry ending. Enjoy warm with bagna cauda or sunomono.
HITO to KI to HITOTOKI Junmai
Imayo Tsukasa (Saitama, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 65% Gohyakumangoku, SMV: +4, Acidity: 0.6
With the artisans who make the sugi wood vessels disappearing, there have been strong efforts in the last decade to teach the next generation how to construct these giant wood tanks. The brewers of Imayo Tsukasa made their own kioke (sugi tank made for fermenting) by hand using wood from the Yoshino Forest! Launched in 2019, the ferment sits in the kioke for two weeks before it goes on to age.
Kioke alongside steel tanks at Imayo Tsukasa
This is a smooth brew that whisky lovers will appreciate at room temperature. Get notes of caramel and spice that go well with Thomas Keller’s roasted chicken. Check out the incredible label design depicting patterns of the sugi by Aya Kodama.