Daruma Masamune is a label used by Gifu Prefecture brewery Shiraki Tsunesuke Shoten (English link). They are a very unusual brewery, in that their main focus is on koshu: aged sake. Many breweries store some of their sake away for sale farther down the road (Gokyo releases a 15-17 year old koshu every year, for example) and some make it a significant element of their production, like Mori no Kura, but at Shiraki they have taken it to the next level.
Back in 1971, the owner looked at the sake brewing situation and realized they needed to do something unique to survive. The idea he hit on was to look back–back to the early days of sake, when records hint that aged sake was highly prized. Sake catalogs from the 1700s refer to 3-year sake, and 9-year sake that commanded prices many multiples of so-called “shinshu” new sake. A later tax code revision ended the practice of aging sake, though, by taxing brewers at time of production, rather than sale–meaning that aged sake taxed at production would not recoup its costs for years. Thus, sake was sold fresh out of necessity. The tax code has since changed, but the trend of selling sake not long after pressing has continued to the present day.
However, in 1971 Daruma Masamune decided to refocus their brewing on sake made for aging–something that no knew how to do! It was a difficult choice, of course, and one that many criticized, but today the brewery has become perhaps the greatest experts on ageing sake in the world, and they offer things that almost no one else can. Next year they plan to release a bottling of sake from 1971–that’s a fifty-year koshu!
I myself learned about them through a random FaceBook post. They were advertising a tasting and study group about koshu, with samples of standard release koshu brewed in 2017, 2015, and 2010, and two very special samples: one from 1976, and one from 1977. I happen to have been born in 1977, so I jumped at the opportunity. Birth year sake! What a chance.
They started by trying to emulate what they thought were key points in medieval-era sake making. Low rice polishing, room-temperature aging, and unsealed tanks. Most of their sake is milled to 70%, stored in enamel tanks with simple covers to stop stuff from dropping in, and no air conditioning. Over time, they found that the flavors and colors they wanted to produce were the result of high amino acid and sugar levels, so they increased the koji rate by 50% and introduced a 5-step fermentation (go-dan jikomi) where they added amazake to the fermentation to spike sugar levels.
The sake is aged in the tank for at least ten years, then (depending on space) moved to bottles, where it is further aged until they need it to ship. They currently have 60,000 1.8 liter bottles stored in containers on the premises, some of them dating back to the 1980s.
They only cool in summer, to keep the temperature below 20 degrees Celsius, and only using fans and cold water poured over the containers.
The results are as you see. Their ten year old sake is darker than some twenty-year I’ve seen. It’s also incredibly richly flavored, with strong almond and walnut notes, and an almost sherry-like nose.
The 1976, as you can see, is not nearly as dark as even the 2010. That’s because it is a ginjo, and the higher milling reduced the levels of amino acids in the brew far below what they like. It tasted quite similar to the 2015, in fact, and if I hadn’t seen the bottle I would not have believed that it is 44 years old.
Then, there is the 1977. As you can see, it is almost black. Against the light it takes on a dark amber glow, and the aroma is layered with burnt caramel, bitter chocolate, and soy sauce. In the mouth it is powerful. There is a stark acidity that balances the richly sweet flavors of nuts, chocolate, and umami. It doesn’t linger very long, surprisingly, but it is also a challenging drink. It demands attention and savoring to try to work through the flavors. It is a sipper, like a bourbon or cognac, rather than a meal beverage like I expect from sake.
Koshu is not a major part of the current sake market, but more and more breweries are thinking about it, and it does play a key role in sake’s history. The drinks you get after aging can be wildly different from fresh sake, but are always worth trying just to see.