Taruzake: cedar in your glass

Sake:Kiku-Masamune Taru Junmai
Sake type:Junmai
Milling ratio:73%

When you start talking to people about sake, many have the impression that all sake is pretty much the same, just different brands. The reality, however, is far from it. There are so many types of sake that it makes it probably the most diverse drink on the planet. Take, for example, taruzake, a sake aged in cedar barrels called taru. I came across it a couple of weeks ago when my friend and I went to izakaya, a Japanese pub, to celebrate the start of the Japanese language class we are both attending.

The place is called Yoi Sho (or Yoisho) and is located in Fitzrovia. Yoisho is a small and very traditional izakaya frequented by Japanese expats. It could be quite busy at times but on a Tuesday evening it’s pretty empty. I’m planning to do a special post about various izakaya in London so I won’t dwell too much on the description for now.

Back to taruzake – before the advance of modern technology, sake like many other alcoholic drinks was stored and transported in wooden barrels, made of cedar in Japan (sugi in Japanese, the same sugi as sugidama). Only when the sake reached shops, it was transferred to ceramic bottles and only then sold to customers. So all sake from that time was taruzake. However, in the 20th century taru were replaced with steel tanks and the bottling done at the brewery.

Still, taru continued its life in the tradition of breaking a cedar cask of sake, called kagami biraki. It usually done at New Year or the start of a new departure in life (like for example, wedding) or business The tradition goes back to the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate, when the fourth shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna, whilst getting ready for a battle, gathered his daimyo (feudal lords) and performed this ceremony for the first time. It worked, the battle was won, and the tradition started.

Chiyoda no on omote Kagamibiraki,
Kagamibiraki Ceremony in the Edo Castle

So now taruzake is a sort of a throwback to the past and few breweries still continue making it. Nowadays, it is stored in cedar casks for only a couple of weeks if not a few days and depending on the time it might have a slight to powerful wooden flavour. There are two types of taruzake: taruzume, which is distributed in cedar casks and used for ceremonies, and binzume, bottled sake. It’s even possible to make taruzake from ordinary sake at home by either serving it in a tokkuri (a traditional sake flask) and cups which are made of cedar, or by putting a piece of cedar wood into a bottle of sake and leave it for a few days.

Kiku-Masamune Brewery
Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery Museum Copyright Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewing Co.,Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The sake we had was Kiku-Masamune Taru Junmai. Kiku-Masamune is a brewery located in Kobe, Hyōgo Prefecture. The brewery is quite old, being founded in 1659 and holds strongly to its traditions. Kiku-Masamune even uses the ancient kimoto sake brewing method, which not many breweries use as it takes twice as long as the more commonly used method, sokujo-moto.

Kimoto is a very interesting if quite painstaking process. In order to produce sake, rice starches are first converted into sugar using yeast. The sugar then is converted into alcohol. The kimoto method relies on wild yeast in the air. Not to mention that the moto (yeast starter) has to be constantly churned for many hours by the brewery’s workers (kurabito).

However, in the beginning of the 20th century it was discovered that if you add a bit more water into the moto and keep the temperature a bit warmer, then you can get away without the laborious churning. The process was called yamahai. Then in 1911, it was discovered that adding lactic acid to the moto would speed up process by half. This method, called sokujo-moto, is now commonly used in most breweries.

While some breweries might use the kimoto method for small batches of special sake, it is very uncommon to predominant brewing process, which makes Kiku-Masamune brewery quite unique. There is a good video on the Kiku-Masamune’s website about the kimoto process:

According to the brewery, the sake brewed by kimoto method has richer taste and deeper flavour. It’s dry, crisp and has a rustic feel, and it goes nicely with traditional Japanese cuisine. I am still to try the brewery’s prized Junmai Daiginjo and Honjozo sake, so I can’t comment on them. However, I have tried their taruzake.

Taruzake is one of Kiku-Masamune’s specialities. The brewery is located not far from the Yoshino region. The area is famous for its cedars which are used for making the barrels where Kiku-Masamune taruzake is aged. The sake is junmai with the milling ratio 73%. It’s not an expensive sake and I’m sure it’s brewed using the modern sokujo-moto method. That evening we had yakitori and the taruzake went nicely with them, underlying the natural umami of the food with its dry taste, while a subtle cedar flavour complemented the charcoal aroma of the yakitori. We enjoyed drinking it although I wouldn’t say that it’s my favourite sake.

Interestingly enough, that when the waiter, with whom we discussed what sake to order, brought us Kiku-Masamune Taru Junmai, the owner of Yoisho (at least I think he was the owner), wasn’t very happy about it. He was saying in Japanese to the waiter that this sake is too smokey and has a strong wooden taste, so we wouldn’t like it. The alternative was an even cheaper sake, so we settled on taruzake and I don’t regret it. It was a good experience and the sake itself was reasonably good for sipping while chatting about Japanese language and particularities of Japanese particles.



Alex is a London-based sake blogger, podcaster, IWC Sake judge and sake advocate. He is a publisher of the Sugidama Blog website and a host of the Sugidama Podcast. Alex has an International Kikisake-shi (Sake Specialist) qualification from SSI (Sake Service Institute). He sees his mission as expanding the awareness of Japanese sake among as many people as possible and helping the growing community of sake lovers to bring together beautiful Japanese sake and non-Japanese food as a way to build a better understanding between our cultures.