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Masu, Salt and Taru-zake

# 27

Jan. 2002

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #27
January 1, 2002


-Newsletter Announcement(s)
-Masu, Salt and Taru-zake
-Sign up for the Updater
-Sake to look for
-Sake events and other miscellany
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information

Newsletter Announcements

Happy New Year! May all readers enjoy a healthy and prosperous 2002.

In the past, there has not been an issue of this newsletter published in December, as I preferred to enjoy the holidays free from deadlines. However, this year is an exception; hence this current issue.

I will also  take the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Originally, this newsletter went out on the 15th of each month, with the issue named for that current month. Well, that deadline got pushed and pushed until the newsletter was going out very near the end of the month, bearing the name of that month. This hardly makes sense, and as such I will from here on out publish at the beginning of the month, naming the issue for that month just begun. As such, there will be no newsletter titled the December issue, but the January issue (i.e. this one) has gone out on January first.

Also, ALL past issues of this newsletter have finally been posted on the Sake World website at Feel free to check out and download them at your leisure.

Masu, Salt and Taru-zake

Many people have had the experience of drinking sake from a small wooden box, often with a pinch of salt on one corner. We may hear that this is one traditional way to drink sake. What is behind this custom?

Those small boxes are known as masu, and were long ago used very commonly to drink sake. The wood they are made of is sugi, sometimes called Japanese Cedar, but more correctly cryptomeria. Originally, they were actually a measure of rice (about one meal's worth), and as they were readily available and cheap, they came into use as drinking vessels as well, especially at the sake pubs of olde. The volume these masu hold eventually came to be the standardized single serving volume: 180 milliliters (just about 5.5 ounces).

Since sake long ago was fermented in wooden tanks, and stored in wooden casks, the woody flavor and smell were strong. This was supported by the wooden masu.

However, finer sake of today is perhaps better off served in some other vessel, one that will not give off such a strong woody scent. As modern sake is brewed in ceramic-lined steel tanks, the woody scents of long ago have now been replaced by fruit, flowers, and a whole host of other aromas. It would hardly be fair to the brewers to force these to compete with the wood of a masu!

There are, by the way, lacquered masu that allow one to enjoy the traditional feel of drinking from a masu, while enjoying the fruits (no pun intended) of modern sake brewing skills.

The pinch of salt on the corner is interesting as well. According to one source (there are sure to be many opinions), the salt should not be placed just on the corner, but a bit to the side of it, so that when one drinks, the salt touches the corner of the lips, not dead center. This allows the sake to be the main flavor, with the salt on the side. Note, the salt should not be allowed to fall into the sake.

Why salt? According to the same source (a historian at one of the large breweries in Japan), the salt was more for the proprietor than the consumer. Salt is often used in purification rituals in Japan, as well as for good luck in drawing customers to places of food and drink. Apparently this superstition was one big reason for putting the pinch of salt on the edge of the masu. But again, there are sure to be other interpretations.

Also, long ago sake was stronger and much sweeter, and simple things like salt and miso were often used as snacks while drinking. A bit of salt was also thought to stimulate the appetite and make the sake itself more enjoyable.

Again, it is important to keep in mind that the premium sake of today is much more refined and elegant than the sake that was around back when these customs became entrenched. There are certainly much more enjoyable food and snacks for sake today than simple salt, although such simplicity certainly has its place.

There is, however, one time and one type of sake for which masu and salt are still commonly used today. 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. Taru-zake is sake that has been stored in the traditional cedar cask, not bottles, deliberately to induce that woody taste and aroma. While it may not be as hoity toity as a fine ginjo, taru-zake has its charm and appeal, and is perfectly enjoyable.

This is precisely when wooden masu are used, with woody sake, and this is when even today we can enjoy a good, strong-flavored sake with a pinch of salt on the corner of the masu.

Should it be available near you, bring in 2002 with a tad of sake tradition, and a prayer for peace and joy on the planet. Again, my wishes to all readers for a Happy New Year.

Sign up for the Updater

I try to keep the Sake World Sake Newsletter impartial and non-commercial,
and not use it as a marketing vehicle for my interests in Yet, I
also want to help those readers that are interested in finding good sake
near them, including finding premium sake available on the Internet.

As such, I would like to encourage those readers interested in buying
excellent sake over the Internet to go to:

This is the eSake Updater sign-up page. The Updater is a monthly email service that provides information about what sake is available, what specials eSake may be running, and what US states may have recently come into the fold of deliverability. Also included will be information on updates to the site, including stories on the various brewers and seasonal happenings. The eSake Updater will be significantly shorter than this email newsletter, and is intended only to keep readers updated on available sake and updates to the site. At the moment, eSake sells premium sake over the web in Japan (nationwide delivery) and in the US (20 states).

It does not seem appropriate for me to simply sign you up for the eSake
Updater without obtaining your permission. I am not personally comfortable
with such strong-arm marketing. But I do encourage you to go and sign up,
especially if you are interested in fresh information and excellent sake.

-------------- is now shipping premium Japanese sake to 20 states, with 15 more
to come online soon. All eSake sake comes from small brewers of
super-premium product. Please check out the website at
It offers a wealth of information on sake, and is easily the largest and
most comprehensive sake knowledge center on the web. The site alone is worth hours of browsing time. To find out if eSake currently ships to your state, or if shipping is scheduled to begin soon, please go to: pup.html
Sake to Look For

Since taru-zake was discussed earlier, perhaps it is best to recommend a couple of those.

In Japan, taruzake is available everywhere in the late fall and early winter. It is less easily found during other times of the year.

Most easily recommendable is Taruhei from Yamagata. The name is no mere coincidence: Almost all sake produced there is stored for at least some time in a wooden taru, as it was long ago. This is done to various degrees for the various sake they brew, so that not all of their sake is overpowering in its woody flavor and aroma. But all of their sake benefits from a certain mellow, well-rounded maturity that is settling and enjoyable. The brewery also makes another brand called Sumiyoshi, which is drier and simpler than the Taruhei line.

Ichinokura makes more taru-zake than most breweries, and is available overseas as well. The sugi flavor and scent are strong, but not overly so. Enjoyable at a wide range of temperatures.

Kuromatsu Hakushika
One of my favorite of the large, consistent brewers, Hakushika sake is more mellow and settled, and their taruzake too is less ostentatious. The woodiness is a bit more restrained than most taru-zake, and may be more appealing to some for that. Also available overseas.


Sake events and other miscellany...


Brewery Visit: January 20, 2002
On Sunday, January 20, I will be leading a tour of a sake brewery in Chiba. The brewery we will visit, Iinuma Shuzo, brews sake sold by the name of Kinoene, and is located out near Narita Airport. (I myself have not yet seen this brewery, and do not know what to expect - except a good time.) If you are interested in sake, there is nothing that can replace seeing where it is actually brewed, smelling the smells, tasting the product through each step of its manifestation. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. There is no charge, but participation is limited to 20.

January 19, 2002
On the evening of Saturday, January 19, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist, and Japanese yakimono (ceramics) expert Robert Yellin and I will be hosting our first sake and Japanese pottery seminar of the new year, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin Ochanomizu and Awajicho Stations, from 6pm to 9pm. As this is the first seminar of the year, we will cover the basics of the sake and Japanese ceramics worlds. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please email me. Participation is limited to 40. The cost for half a dozen sakes for sampling, ample food, and a hopefully enlightening lecture with printed handouts is 7000 yen. No deposit is required.

February 2, 2002(Japanese)
Haruo Matsuzaki will be holding a sake seminar on Saturday, February 2, from 6:30 until the last train at Shin-Romantei in Yotsuya Yanagicho (a ten minute walk from Akebono-bashi station on the Shinjuku Line, or two minutes walk from Ushi-gome Yanagicho station on the O-Edo line). The topic will be the brewing styles of Niigata and the Hokuriku region. Seminars feature a short lecture in Japanese with tasting, and an optional but highly recommendable konshinkai (party) with food afterwards downstairs. The cost is 6000 yen. Those interested can make a reservation by emailing me at, or Matsuzaki-san directly at

Sake books:

The Sake Companion, published by Running Press

A hardbound, well designed book, The Sake Companion approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch. Unlike my first book, The Sake Handbook, this new volume covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with numerical rankings and an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.

Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.

The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).

Also worth searching for:
-The Sake Handbook (John Gauntner): A bit more technical but with a listing of 50 sake pubs in Tokyo.
-Sake: Pure and Simple (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider's Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura (Rikyubai in Osaka) in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker's Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.


Home-Brewing Sake

If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.

Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.

Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing:, and see their site at

To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word "subscribe" without the quotes to . To unsubscribe, send the word "unsubscribe", without the quotes, to For a list of other useful commands, send the word "help", less the quotes, to Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to

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Publication Information
Sake World is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.

NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice below.

Most of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to, click on the Sake Newsletter tab, click on Archived Email Versions, and select the issues you want to read from the chart. For those that have only recently signed up, all the past issues can be downloaded and perused at your leisure.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner,
Copyright 2001 Sake World


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