Otōsō: A Japanese herbal saké is the perfect drink to start 2021

All images are the author’s personal photos.

In Japan on the first few days of the year, a ceremonial herb steeped saké called 御屠蘇 otōsō (also referred to as tōsō), a traditional medicinal drink, is served to the family and friends who have gathered on the morning of the new year to kickstart the year off in the right direction.

For an auspicious festive drink,the characters used to write the word “tōsō” are a bit confusing, as the characters “屠る” hofuru/slay and “蘇る” yomigaeru/revive are used in tandem. The contemporary interpretation suggests that the drink, like its namesake, will slay all the bad omens and revive all the good for the new year, granting longevity and good health.

The roots of otōsō have been muddled, steeped and flavoured in history:

The creation of 屠苏 tú-sū medicinal wine (the origin of the Japanese 屠蘇 tōsō) is often credited to the Han Dynasty Chinese physician 华佗 Hua Tuo (c. 140AD–208AD), referred to as 華佗 Ka-Da in Japan, famous for being a talented herbalist and the first recorded physician in China to use an anesthetic. The majority of Hua Tuo’s work was famously lost in time (it’s a long story)!

It’s suggested that tú-sū wine was later made popular among the common folk in China by 孙 思邈 Sun Xi-miao (c. 581–682AD), referred to as 孫 思邈 Son Shibaku in Japanese, a renowned physician who refused to work in the high courts, seeing a greater need to treat villagers and townspeople in the countryside. He started dispensing the herbs to make tú-sū in readily pre-measured packets. He is purported to have lived to be over a hundred and credited his long life to consuming the medicinal herbal elixir.

Every year he would distribute herbal packets to villagers, to be steeped in their wells overnight, with the water to be mixed with rice wine on the first day of the year and then consumed, to protect them against the plague and typhoid. Over time, the medicinal water-mixed wine came to be fondly referred to as tú-sū — the name of Sun Xi-miao’s grass thatched hermitage.

Other theories suggest 屠苏草 tú-sū is an archaic name for purple perilla, Zi Su 紫苏 ( also known as Red Shiso in Japanese 紫蘇), and that either the wine was brewed with perilla, or that Sun Xi-miao’s hermitage was called tú-sū because the perilla leaf was a prevalent motif decorating his dwelling.

The first recorded mention of otōsō in Japan is in the Nihon-Shoki Historical Chronicles 日本書紀. The Emperor Saga 嵯峨天皇 (786AD — 842AD) is recorded as having received a silk sachet of herbs from a Chinese emissary during the (遣唐使) kentōshi, which were Japanese cultural missions to Tang China. The sachet was presented to the emperor with instructions to soak it in saké overnight and sip the resulting brew in the new year to grant longevity and good health. The practice spread to the courtiers of the Heian court and quickly became popularized, with distinctly Japanese accoutrements and customs being created along the way.

Although Hua Tuo’s exact tú-sū recipe is unknown and lost to history, in Japan the herbal sachets, also known as tōsō-san 屠蘇散 , can be purchased at pharmacies or specialty shops. These contain anywhere from 5–10 traditional herbs that are pre-measured and wrapped in a paper packet, ready to be steeped overnight to pack a pungent, evil-dispelling, soul-reviving punch.

Making your own spirit lifting tōsō-san blend.

The list of herbs may differ from region to region, but here are a few often cited to be in the mixture. Once regarded to be highly medicinal (and still researched for this purpose), the first couple of spices and herbs can be found in regular and asian grocery stores, and should be familiar enough to create a home-made spice blend for your own tōsō-san mix. The latter are harder to find, and should be avoided by beginners: proper dosing and knowledge of herbal medicine is quite difficult, and these should be left out for any home-made recipes.

Making your own tōsō-san herb blend isn’t difficult. Start with herbs you enjoy, adjusting the portions to your taste. Crush gently with a mortar and pestle and place the mixture in a paper filter to steep.

桂皮(ケイヒ)Cinnamomum cassia (cinnamon)

丁子(チョウジ)Syzygium aromaticum (cloves)

茴香(ウイキョウ)Foeniculum vulgare (fennel seeds)

花椒(サンショウ) Zanthoxylum bungeanum (Sichuan peppercorn)

陳皮(チンピ)dried mandarin peel

八角 (はっかく) Illicium verum (star anise)

大黄(だいおう)Rheum palmatum or Rheum officinale (rhubarb)

蘇葉(ソヨウ)Perilla frutescens (shiso)

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忍冬(ニンドウ)Lonicera japonica flowers and leaves (Japanese honeysuckle)

白朮(ビャクジュツ)Atractylodes root

防風(ボウフウ) Saposhnikovia divaricata root

桔梗(キキョウ)Platycodon grandiflorus (balloon flower) root

The most traditional way to make otōsō is to steep a sachet of the ground up herbs the night before the new year in sweet red akazaké 赤酒 or mirin liquor 味醂. Note that properly brewed hon-mirin 本味醂本 should be used, which is brewed like saké but with sweet rice in place of saké rice, giving it a syrupy sweet consistency. Non-brewed cooking mirin should not be used. The herbal flavours can be quite potent, so depending on your tastes, you can cut the mixture with dry saké. 200 ml is the average amount that will fill a traditional tōsō serving vessel so the author suggests a 50/50 mixture of 100 ml of steeped herbal mirin cut with 100ml of dry saké. If a good quality mirin can’t be found, 1/2 cup of drinking saké with ⅛ cup of organic sugar can be simmered together for 5–7 minutes to approximate the sweetness and consistency of mirin, and can be used as a substitute mixture to steep the herbs in.

Served with its own special set-up and presented ceremoniously on a special 屠蘇台 tōsō-dai tray, the herbal elixir is poured from a lacquered wooden chōshi 銚子, a teapot-like vessel decorated with folded paper, gold foil and ornately tied, auspicious cords called mizuhiki (水引). Traditional shallow sakazuki 盃 saké saucers, stacked three high on a towering 盃台 sakazuki-dai, are used to present the beverage to the family that has come together to welcome in the new year before the traditional feast begins.

A traditional lacquered wood 屠蘇 otōsō set.

The most formal ceremony of drinking otōsō is called 屠蘇三献 tōsō-san-kon and involved a very lengthy process of using all three stacked saucers. The ceremony requires all family members facing the sunrise in the east, starting with the smallest saucer, in a special order of youngest to oldest served in three pours and sipped in three sips. The process is repeated with the middle saucer, starting this time with the second youngest, to the oldest then to the youngest. The final, largest saucer starts with the third youngest, to the oldest and back to the youngest, ending the cycle with the second youngest.

To simplify and speed up the process, it is acceptable that the smallest and largest saucer be taken off the stack and just the middle saucer be used with the order going from youngest to oldest. A special mantra is then recited “A family will be free from illness if a person drinks it, and people residing within an hour’s walk will be free from illness if all people in a family drink it.” (一人これを飲めば一家病無く、一家これを飲めば一里病無し). The drinking process was repeated with any visitors who came around to the house to offer their new year’s greetings up until the third day of the new year.

It is unfortunate that fewer and fewer Japanese people are taking part in the tradition of drinking otōsō. The ceremony is regarded as rigid and old fashioned, and many families no longer own an otōsō serving set. Once religiously observed each new year, it’s a fading cultural practice, the younger generation preferring Champagne at the countdown.

Bubbles and mulled wine are great for celebrations and winter festivities, but notorious for hangovers; after 2020, which made the worst hangovers feel like a cakewalk, this herbal elixir cocktail — one part exorcising powers and one part reviving ability — sounds like the perfect prescription to start this year.

Whether you start the new year right at January 1st or the beginning of the lunar calendar, any day you want to start anew, an otōsō cocktail might be the most appropriate drink to ring in the new era, giving you spirit to cut through all the negativity and renew all the good this 2021.

cheers!

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