Growing up in the tropics, I didn’t experience a wintry Christmas until my first year of university in London. I spent Christmas Eve at a house party, the details of which have long since blurred — in retrospect, the person who invited me might’ve been trying to convert me to his church — but I still remember the fug of spices wafting through the rooms, the taste of hot mulled wine a reprieve from the cold and damp outside.
Since then, I’ve come to associate Christmas with the scent of that drink. With the end of 2020 upon us, I toyed with the idea of making a citrus- and spice-infused sake equivalent for this part of the world. But as it transpires, Japan already has its own version: otoso, an herb-infused brew spiritually akin to mulled wine.
Up to a dozen ingredients comprise the tososan, the blend of herbs and spices which gives the drink its name. The herbs used vary by recipe and maker, but are typically chosen for their medicinal benefits. Examples include cassia bark, Chinese bellflower, sanshō pepper, cinnamon and dried mandarin peel.
First drunk by the aristocrats at New Year’s ceremonies at the palace and later by the general populace, otoso is thought to have arrived from China during the late Heian Period (794-1185). It’s written with characters (屠蘇) that refer to its supposed “evil-slaughtering” and “soul-reviving” qualities, though in modern times it’s imbibed more to keep sickness at bay, and bring health and good fortune.
Traditionally people would drink otoso on the first morning of the new year, but it’s now far less common than it used to be. However, if ever there was a year we could all use a little help with our health, 2020 is it. The easy route is to buy tososan packets from your local supermarket or pharmacy, and steep it overnight in sake and mirin. But as with mulled wine, why not make your own?
Departing from tradition, I experimented with a few infusions for my own take on otoso in the spirit of mulled wine. There’s no real right or wrong way to make this, but here are a few pointers to make a brew you’ll love.
For starters, everything hinges on the quality of your sake and mirin (sweet, fermented cooking alcohol). You don’t need to buy the best sake — a daiginjō would be wasted here — but choose one you enjoy drinking. I went with the seasonal Gokyo-brand arabashiri junmai from Yamaguchi Prefecture, fresh and fruity, but not overly sweet.
Choose the best hon-mirin your budget will allow, as it will make all the difference to the final product — regular cooking mirin with added salt and sugar is unacceptable here. Use a top-notch rice wine straight from the bottle; Tsurukame Farm in Chiba Prefecture produces a fine example that is boozy and fragrant, almost honey-like.
When it comes to your herbs and spices though, the sky’s the limit. Hatomugi (toasted Chinese pearl barley) makes for a nutty drink, while adding star anise, cinnamon and clove results in a brew reminiscent of cough syrup. Slivers of ginger, candied or dried, are wonderfully warming, as are whole black peppercorns. Fresh sanshō berries, if you can find them, are excellent.
One of my best versions was a citrus-centric concoction: three kinds of citrus peels, hawthorn berries, goji berries, ginger and a few black peppercorns. Yuzu is a classic choice, but I opted for the sweet-tart yukō, gifted by some dear friends in Kamikatsu, Tokushima Prefecture. Yukō peel imparts a zippy sunshine-like quality, especially when paired with fresh and dried mikan peel. I imagine other local citruses like jabara, kabosu and daidai would be marvelous, too. Whatever citrus peel you decide to use, make sure you scrape off as much of the pith as possible. While tedious, this will eliminate unnecessary bitterness.
With the pandemic still rumbling on outside, there’s probably no need to wait until the new year. Come Christmas, I know where I’ll be: sipping on homemade otoso, raising a glass to better days ahead.
Recipe: How to make spiced otoso sake
Prep: 5-10 mins., plus steeping time
• A bottle of good-quality sake
• Hon-mirin with no added salt and sugar
• Spices (such as citrus peel, ginger, cinnamon, clove, peppercorns or dried fruit)
1. Mix 300 milliliters total of sake and mirin in your desired ratio, and add spices to taste. I personally like 4-to-1 sake to mirin, for a drier brew; more mirin makes this a richer, sweeter drink, but experiment with the proportions until it tastes delicious to you. Steep for four to eight hours, or overnight in the fridge. Taste periodically, until it’s infused to your liking. Strain. You’ll be left with a rich, amber-colored liquid.
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