A Forgotten Samurai Energy Drink

A Forgotten Samurai Energy Drink

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Hundreds of years before Red Bull, the samurai of the house of Date were drinking a powdered concoction said to replenish a warrior's energy.

In Sendai, capital of the northern Miyagi Prefecture, signs of the influence of the house of Date in general, and Date Masamune in particular, are ubiquitous. From the city emblem, to foods like Sendai miso, to the local festivals, to the ironwork on the light posts lining Aoba-dōri; you don’t have to look hard to find some mark of their tenure as local rulers. Admittedly, this isn’t too surprising, considering that Masamune founded Sendai as his castle town. Yet a surprising point of that lingering influence is in the world of sake. And what’s even more surprising is that through sake, the Date clan was responsible for an early energy drink.

Sake barrels in 1832 woodcut.
Sake barrels in an 1832 portrait by Toyota Hokkei. (image in the public domain)

Borrowing a Brewer

The Kayamori family, the line of hereditary head brewers in service to the Date clan, was responsible for brewing this and the rest of the alcohol used in the clan’s official functions. The first Kayamori, Mataemon, was originally from Yamato Province. There he worked for Yagyu Munenori. Munenori, noted sword-master in service to the Tokugawa shoguns and early inheritor of the famed sword-style Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, was himself a lordly daimyo; his fiefdom, too, was in Yamato Province. He ruled in what is now Nara City.

In 1608, during a visit to the Yagyu estate in Edo, Date Masamune sampled the sake from the Yagyu fief. It bears noting here that among Masamune’s many skills and hobbies, he was also something of a chef and a sake connoisseur. He was impressed enough with the sake sampled at the Yagyu estate that he asked Munenori to provide him with one of the lord’s own brewers. Munenori duly sent Yamatoya Matagoro to Sendai, where Masamune made Matagoro a Date retainer. He granted him the name Kayamori Mataemon — Kayamori after Matagoro’s hometown, and Mataemon after the common name of Yagyu Munenori. Masamune also granted him a hereditary stipend and control of the clan’s brewery in the newly built Sendai Castle. Mataemon had a storied 52-year career, and his descendants continued in Date service through 1868.

Sendai Castle gate tower. The samurai energy drink was brewed in the castle town.
Woodblock print by Kawase Hasui depicting the Sendai Castle gate tower. (image in the public domain)

The Rice Wine Wizard

Kayamori Mataemon was a brilliant and creative brewer and brewed 27 varieties of alcohol.

These 27 varieties include familiar offerings like umeshu (plum wine) and chrysanthemum wine, alongside regular sake. They also featured rarer offerings, like strawberry wine and longan wine. And among the 27 varieties, perhaps the most intriguing is the powdered alcohol called inrō-shu (inrō alcohol). Credit for the modern invention of powdered alcohol usually goes to Sato Foods Industries, which invented it in the 1970s; however, this lost form of sake predates it by several centuries.

Here’s what we know. Inrō-shu was produced at the brewery in Sendai Castle’s third bailey (san no maru). It was made to be carried by individual troopers of the clan’s army as part of their rations. The drink’s nomenclature derives from a vessel called inrō, which one wore suspended from the waist and in which one often carried things like medicine. While there were no new wars in Japan until the 1860s, the Date clan’s fighting forces were deployed on coast guard duty many times in the Ezochi— what’s now Hokkaido, southern Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands. Inrō-shu may very well have accompanied Date forces there.

An Inro jug meant for carrying sake or other drinks. The samurai energy drink was carried in such a vessel.
Inrō with a scene depicting a fox’s wedding. (Image in the public domain)

Samurai Energy in an Inrō

But what was the powdered inrō-shu like when reconstituted, and why was it lost?


One of our best clues comes from Sendai Bussan Enkaku, the work of Yamada Kiichi (1847-1923), a former Date retainer who became one of modern Sendai’s first mayors. The tome in question introduces local products, including foods and drinks, in their historical contexts. It is in the section on sake that Yamada briefly mentions the fate of inrō-shu’s last surviving batch:

In Meiji 10 [1877], descendants of the Kayamori family’s descendants moved to Teppō-chō [in modern Miyagino-ku]. They held a Buddhist memorial service for their ancestor, and used the last of the inrō-shu. Reconstituting it by stirring in warm water, they served it to the guests, and obtained about one or two shō of sake in total. Its method of production had been passed orally, and is no longer transmitted.

Yamada Kiichi, Sendai Bussan Enkaku, p. 370.
Former Date retaining Yamada Kiichi later in life.
Yamada Kiichi later in life. (image in the public domain)

Power on the Go

In short: condensed for convenience, easily reconstituted in water, and capable of producing large quantities of reconstituted beverage easily. A perfect balance for a trooper on the march.

As brewmasters in service to a daimyo, to the Kayamori family, the transition into the modernizing Meiji period would’ve been a challenge at best. What’s more, as something transmitted orally between generations, inrō-shu’s recipe would already have been at risk of disappearing even in peaceful times. The tumultuous Meiji transition began with the Date clan’s defeat in the Boshin War and the subsequent downsizing of its domain — and thus the realignment of its financial priorities. Among much that fell victim to this was the clan’s theretofore lively and generous patronage of Noh performers, set-dressers, and other professionals. So, it is not too surprising that the recipe for inro-shu had been lost to knowledge by Meiji 10 (1877), one of the casualties of the Meiji Revolution. The Kayamori line, like the family’s sake, died out in the early Meiji era.

Today, some armies still carry alcohol in field rations. For example, a cordial appears in the Italian Army’s Razione Viveri Speciale da Combattimento, its special combat ration.

And back in Sendai, you can still sample the regular sake once brewed for house Date; the Katsuyama brewery continues to brew “Sendai Domain Official Sake” (Sendai-han Goyōzake). This was established by the Katsuyama family, which was hired by the Date clan at the recommendation of Kayamori.

It is the modern flavor of an old, bold brewing tradition.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on anchor.fm/fridaynighthistory and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy