You don’t hear much about the tanks used for brewing or storing sake. In many other beverages, the type, age and source of the wood used for the tanks often contributes a major component to the flavor. Although sake is now independent of these factors, this was not always the case.
Originally, all sake was brewed in wooden — sugi (cedar), to be exact — tanks. It wasn’t until 1923 that enamel-coated steel tanks came into use, and many more years until they became the industry standard. Very rarely do you come across wooden tanks anymore.
The reason this all changed was that the flavor of the sake was incredibly overwhelmed by the fragrance and taste of the wood. As sake emerged from its rough flavor-profile days (thanks to better rice-milling techniques and other technological advances) and became more delicate and refined, the woodiness became a problem.
I once tasted a set of three sake brewed by Gekkeikan — one brewed just as it was in the Meiji Era, one from the Taisho Era and one from the early Showa Era. The wood was incredibly overwhelming, most evident in the Meji sake and next in the Taisho sake. They were barely drinkable (although the lower milling, no doubt, contributed to this, too). It’s no wonder they warmed the stuff back then.
Also, beyond the tanks for brewing and storage, sake was shipped in casks of various sizes, again made of sugi. These taru, too, imparted a strong woodiness to the sake. Although the use of glass began as early as 1869, the taru were irreplaceable to some degree.
This was because so much sake was shipped from the Nada region of Kobe to Edo, on huge, fast ships called taru-kaisen. These ships, which carried innumerable taru, made the trip in 20 days and were an important aspect of sake commerce back then. Using glass casks on these ships as they zipped along the rough seas was too much of a risk for the big brewers.
Once the sake arrived in Edo, it was tested to ensure it hadn’t gone off from being cooped up in the taru for too long and usually blended by the sake-donya (distributors) to ensure consistency. (Note that some less scrupulous distributors of the time would cut the product with a bit of water while they were at it. This led to the derogatory term kingyo sake, or goldfish sake, suggesting the sake was thinned out so much that a goldfish could live in it.)
Much changed in 1910, with the adoption by industry leaders like Gekkeikan, Hakutsuru and Sakura Masamune of the 1.8-liter issho bin bottle. Note, this was all supplanted by the demise of the taru-kaisen and the rise of the railroad system, giving Kyoto and Nada easy land access to the Tokyo market. All of a sudden, sake no longer needed to be blended on site, and less woody and more refined sake was born. This, in fact, was a deliberate strategy on Gekkeikan’s part: to become known for its more refined sake.
But don’t despair. Sake with that old woody flavor and fragrance is still available. Even if it is not quite premium sake, it has a definite appeal (if the woodiness is not too overpowering).
Such sake is known as taru-zake and has literally been stored in a wooden taru for a period of time before bottling. (The old Tokyo sake pub Fukube, near Tokyo Station, has very fresh taru sake, drawn right from a taru sitting on the counter.) It is fairly widely available at stores, especially just into the New Year. Although simple glass bottles must take their place among the several key contributions to great sake over the decades, sake’s wooden roots are just as important.
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Iwanoi (Chiba Prefecture)
Located near the ocean, the kura that brews Iwanoi has a great source of very hard water, which is good for vigorous ferments. They have been making ginjo on some scale since the early Showa Era, and in 1947, very tiny though they may be, they won the top award of the now-defunct Zenkoku Seishu Kampyoukai.
This daiginjo is bursting at the seams with a wide range of fruity flavors, but somehow maintains a semblance of outward composure, as if it were too elegant and refined to just let it all hang out. As such, it unfolds slowly, revealing its various fragrant and flavorful components at its own pace. Very enjoyable.