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Sake Poem - "A Sake Barrel" and Taru Sake

A Sake Barrel

A sake barrel,
Born without hands, makes merry -
Cherry blossom time.

Ihara Saikaku
(1642 - 1693 / Japan)

Granted this poem was written with spring in mind, but I liked the "makes merry" aspect, especially for the holidays. I am assuming the "Born without hands" means fermenting sake, doing it's own thing. Of course they not only produced sake in barrels at that time but they stored nihonshu in wooden barrels as well. Thus sake definitely had "woody" characteristics back in the day.

Today several breweries make "taru-zake" or cedar sake that harkens back to those woody qualities of year's past. Why? Cedar sakes have a nice "difference" to them. They are not fruity, not overtly dry, not pristine. They are different and that's what makes them enjoyable. If you have never tried a taru-zake, we currently carry three different brews to choose from. It's tough to hunker down and drink a lot of taru-zake, but a glass or two with a hearty meal of perhaps smoked fish, fowl, or game is a very good call. Temperature wise I prefer my cedar sakes at room temperature, which brings out more of the woody characteristics. I also like to drink taru-zake out of masu! A cedar sake out of a cedar box! This is fun to do, but it also reminds one how "cedary" a sake can taste.

Typically a brewery will produce a full-bodied or dry Junmai and will then pour that sake into cedar casks for roughly two weeks. Any more time than that and the sake absorbs too much of the cedar elements and gets almost antiseptic. This is the major reason why they do not ship filled cedar taru casks used in celebrations and events from Japan to the US. It takes too much time, over 30 days, and this would be too long in the barrel.

Taru-zake is as close to Whiskey or Scotch as the sake industry gets. Whiskey and Scotch use those wooden barrels to extract flavor and color, and so too does taru-zake. But the only major difference is the duration within the barrel. I once tasted an aged taru sake that was aged in wood for 8 years, and it was not that great. In fact my host said that he only liked it warmed up, and I had to agree, although it still was pretty rough.

But if you like smoky and rich flavors of wood and rice then perhaps it's time to try a taru-zake. And as the weather gets cold and your fireplace gets hot, now is the time to try this throwback sake.

Ichinokura Taru "Barrel"
From Miyagi Prefecture. Junmai Taru. SMV: +2 Acidity:1.4

This Junmai Taru, which is cedar-kept sake from "Ace Brewery" is a terrific example of how sake used to taste way back in the day of all cedar casks. The nose is a blend of Japanese cedar and apple blossoms with a faint hint of tropical citrus. It has a very subtle start despite the robust nose and is filled with a savory middle- mouth of dried apples and overripe pears. There is a hint of thickness that makes the viscosity dance in a salty aftertaste. It is slightly chewy and syrupy, and changes flavors as the fluid warms in the mouth. WORD: Apple WINE: Oaky whites/zesty reds BEER: Smoky Ambers FOODS: Stews, dumplings, cooked veggies, pates.

Ozeki Komatsu Tatewaki "Samurai Sake"
From Hyogo Prefecture. Junmai Taru. SMV: +5 Acidity: 1.6

This cedar-aged (less than two weeks) brew has a smoky, grainy, vanilla, charcoal, and cedar nose. A well-balanced taru-zake that has several degrees of flavors that are best expressed in different sized glasses. A small cup brings forth more cedar tones on a dry fluid with a quick finish. A larger cup displays a more open cedar flavor with a deep layer of sweetness similar to caramel or noughet with more pronounced acidity and a slightly tangy finish. The brew gets more vast at room temperature highlighting the cedar and acidity play. If you like drinking sake from a masu (cedar box) this brew will speak to you. WORD: Cedar WINE: Zesty reds/Crisp whites BEER: Crisp smoky ales FOODS: Smoked meat, fowl, fish, and cheeses.

Kiku Masumune Taru "Barrel" (300ml bottle)
From Hyogo Prefecture. Junmai Taru. SMV: +5

This is a solid example of a traditional tasting sake in the sense that it is barrel aged. Kiku Masumune is known for its dry sakes, and this Taru does not disappoint. True to tradition and aged in cedar casks, Taru is bottled when the natural cedar fragrance strikes the perfect balance with the flavor of the sake. The nose is of course cedar and there is a rich golden color. The sake is thinner than one would think, and the mouth speed is quite fast. The texture is clear and the taste is cedar focused. WORD: Cedar WINE: Very Cedary Whites BEER: Special Seasonal Brews FOODS: Works well with smoked foods such as fish, chicken and duck.

Kiku Masumune Taru "Barrel" (Newly released 720ml bottle 2010)
From Hyogo Prefecture. Junmai Taru. SMV: +5

This taru "cedar" sake has a prototypical cedar aroma profile with hints of honey, cinnamon, and Christmas spices. With a low alcohol percentage of between 13-14% this taru sake drinks incredibly light and smooth for a sake that has a lot of flavor and feeling. Look for smoked rice, red pepper, vanilla, and cinnamon flavors amongst the cedar anchor, and the body of the brew gets more full as the sake warms in the glass. The brew drinks dry from start to finish and there is a crisp tingle tail that puts the punctuation on the cedar elements. The larger the glass the thinner the body, and softness reigns supreme out of any sized vessel. WORD: Cedary WINE: Dry reds/Oaky whites BEER: Crisp ales FOODS: Smoked fish, fowl, game, cheeses and salty snacks.

We used to carry this last cedar sake, but the brewery changed distributors and we no longer have access to it, but if you see it out on the market it is definitely worth a try. (One of my favorite taru- zakes on account of the elegance of this brew.)

Kikusakari Taru "Cedar"
Ibaraki Prefecture. Junmai. SMV: +3 Acidity: 1.5

An amazing aroma profile filled with mild cedar, brown sugar and toffee. This Taru or "cedar sake" was said to be aged "slowly" in Akita cedar barrels to give this brew a very unique smoky-peppery flavor. It is both mellow and light on the pure cedar aspect of a Taru; more elegant than an "in your face, woody sake." The hidden flavors speak volumes - look for the smoked tofu and Gouda layers. The brilliant water is unmistakable. WORD: Smoky WINE: Barrel aged big reds/big whites BEER: Crisp ales FOODS: Smoked fish, tofu, cheese plates, risotto.
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