Sake to See In the New Year: Otoso

Greetings Sake Lovers, welcome to another KURAND Magazine article that introduces you to the world of sake.

One of the many charms of sake is the way it is intertwined with elements of Japanese culture. Sake’s role in religious and celebratory rituals is a great example of this. In fact there is a special sake for every major seasonal event in the Japanese calendar except Tanabata in July and that of course includes new years. The special sake for new year is called otoso.

What is Otoso Sake

The word otoso is written with two Chinese characters that roughly mean to defeat evil spirits. And that’s basically the purpose of this sake. Otoso is made by marinating various medicinal ingredients and spices in sake and mirin (sweet sake). It is not so much a sake, but a spiced beverage made with a base of sake. You could say this is Japan’s answer to mulled wine in that similar spices are sometimes added. The custom of drinking otoso can be traced as far back as the early 1100s, when it is said to have come over from China. Aristocrats were the first to adopt it, before it spread to the populous throughout the 16th century. People believed that otoso would not only rid the body of evil spirits but that it also helped prolong life and keep sickness at bay. Of course, these days it is the latter effects that people are more concerned with. Many people drink it on the first day of the new year to bring happiness and health to the family.

The blend of natural medicinal ingredients that is used as the base for otoso is called otosan and can be purchased in packet form in supermarkets and pharmacies.

What Ingredients Comprise The Base of Otoso?


おくすり屋さんの屠蘇散

Generally, natural medicinal herbs and spices are used, a lot of which are key ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines. Although the official recipe calls for 10 types of ingredients, many otoso are only made with 5-6. Ingredients include saposhnikovia divaricat, Japanese pepper, cinnamon, Chinese bellflower, atractylodes rhizome, rhubarb, and cassia; the benefits of which include increasing stomach activity, blood circulation, promote sweating, and even preventing colds. We all know how easy it is to eat too much and drink too much at this time of year—so from a health standpoint, otoso is perhaps not such a bad idea.

Make Otoso Sake at Home


*Otososan might be a little hard to get hold of outside Japan, but you might find something similar at Chinese medicine stores and you can make something similar by combining the spices listed above. There is no strict recipe, so feel free to experiment. Perhaps start with mulled wine spices and build up from there.

Only three things need to be prepared: tososan, sake, and mirin.
One package of tososan needs to be submerged in a 300-500ml mixture of sake and mirin for a few hours. After the package is removed, it is complete.

Extra Tips
1: It is recommended to use real mirin (hon-mirin) instead of cooking mirin. Cooking mirin often includes salt.

2:For those who dislike sake, they can just use mirin and for those who like sake, they can just use sake.

3:For those who like things sweet, adding sugar is an available option. Also, adding extra mirin will make it sweeter and create a smooth taste on the tongue. If extra sake is added then it will become crisp and dry tasting.

4:Using normal sake or honjozoshu (sake brewed without the addiction of saccharide) is recommended.

屠蘇器(とそき)

The traditional ware to enjoy otoso is a set of 3 different size sakazuki (see photo at top of post) or the vessels with the long handle used in weddings called a ochoshi. But a simple sakazaki or ochoko will also suffice.

How to Drink Otoso


It depends on the region and family but the general method is listed below.

1: Drink o-toso before eating osechi ryouri and ozouni (both are new year special food / dishes).
2: The entire family will face east.
3: The oldest person will pour sake for the youngest person. Generally in banquets, the sake cup goes from the oldest to the youngest, but o-toso is the opposite. The sake cup passes from the youngest to oldest. This is said to be remnants of past customs of tasting for poison and also passing vitality from the young to the elderly.
4: It is said, ‘A family will be free from illness if a person drinks it, and people residing within four kilometers will be free from illness if all people in a family drink it.’
5: People who are yakudoshi (unlucky year) drink last.

O-toso is not only drank on the first day of the new year, but on the first 3 days when visitors come. It is proper decorum to exchange new year greetings over otoso.


So there you have it — just one of many sake fueled traditions that is still practiced in Japan today. Why not see if you can experience this tradition for yourself the next time you visit Japan. Perhaps thanks to this article, you won’t have to look so bemused the next time your host family serves up a cup of spiced sake after dinner.