Any industry whether it be movies, music, wine or art gives birth to a few creations that garner a cult-following. The sake world is no different. In fact, the small size of most sake breweries and the lack of national (and of course international) distribution of many sake further fuels the cult-like following for these sake. I’m talking about those sake unicorns that inspire fanatical devotion where drinkers clamor over themselves to track down a sip of this sake they’ve heard about through mass media, instagram tweets or bar room chat. Likewise, the establishments that get their hands on these white-whales often waste no time in letting all and sundry know that they have procured a bottle or two of these mysterious elixirs providing them with a solid claim to being a credible sake bar along with a juicy carrot to dangle in front of prospective customers. Indeed, there are a few of these cult-sake however few have reached the status of the revered Juyondai.
Located in northern Japan in Yamagata prefecture, brewery Takagi Shuzo was established in 1615, so although they’ve been around quite a while it’s only in the last few years or so that they’ve hit their dizzying heights as Juyondai. In fact when their last toji (head brewer) retired 18 years ago the brewery faced uncertainty as there was no one to take over the reigns. Like most breweries, the toji was a hired gun who would come to the brewery in the winter brewing season and return to his home once the season was done. In what seems to be a fairly common tale lately, with a lack of successors to the toji the responsibility was picked up by a member of the breweries’ family. In this case the president’s son Akitsuna Takagi, at the time a 21 year old agriculture student. Takagi-san took the somewhat unprecedented move of brewing sans toji. Learning from others around him and studying as much as he could about the technicalities as well as the intangible aspects of sake brewing, Takagi turned Juyondai around in a way few could have foreseen. What seemed a gamble at the time became a masterstroke that saw the brewery’s future guaranteed . In a time when the tanrei karakuchi (light and dry) style of Niigata was all the rage, Takagi-san introduced their new range of bold fruit driven sake. Even these days Takagi Shuzo only brews around 2000 koku (koku 石 is the measuring unit for brewed sake. 1 koku equals about 100 x 1800ml bottles) meaning roughly 200,000 or so bottles. Which for a sake in such demand really isn’t much especially considering some of their 20 different sake including their often experimental limited brews aren’t even available outside of Yamagata prefecture. However, this small production sees demand remain high and seemingly guarantees sold out stocks every year. Today, Juyondai is the kind of sake fans travel for. Although there might be a dozen sake bars closer, drinkers will travel that extra distance to get their hands on some Juyondai.
I’ve tried Juyondai quite a few times and have always been well impressed so when the offer came to attend a special dinner which would see an unrivaled selection of 13 Juyondai sake open on the table it was too much for my inner (and outer) sake geek to resist. The line-up did a wonderful job of cementing the image that Juyondai are producers of outstanding sake. I’ve resisted the urge to bore you with my tasting notes on all the sake so I’ll just comment on the ones that really stood out for me, bearing in mind that there honestly wasn’t a dud in the bunch. As follows:
Funatare Origarami Junmai Ginjo Nama(3 yr aged) 槽垂れ おり絡み 純米吟醸
Slightly cloudy. Spritzy, gentle sweetness and highly acidic. I originally assumed this had been made with a white wine yeast as it was so reminiscent of New Zealand Pinot Gris. As usual I was wrong however. Most Juyondai is brewed using locally cultivated Yamagata yeast and occasionally Association Yeast No.15.
Junmai Ginjo Yamadanishiki & Dewasansan blend Nama 純米吟醸 山田錦・出羽燦々 生
Junmai Muroka (unfiltered) Naka-dori Nama 純米無濾過 中取り 生
Junmai Muroka Naka-dori Pasteurised 純米無濾過 中取り 火入れ
Exactly the same as the above sake but pasteurized and this made all the difference. While nama sake can be fun, the overt aromas and cloying flavours can be well tamed by a bit of heat treatment. This sake showed an impeccable balance of melon and stone fruit aromas with some soft floral notes. Surprisingly bright and expressive for a junmai. Smooth, low-key but well-balanced.
Ryu no Otoshiko Junmai Ginjo 龍の落とし子 純米吟醸 火入れ
This threw me as it was significantly earthier than the other sake with less fruit aromas and more rice driven grit despite the ginjo grading. Umami rich and moreish.
Junmai Ginjo Yamada Nishiki 純米吟醸 山田錦 火入れ
Junmai Ginjo Omachi 純米 雄町 火入れ
Ginsen Daiginjo Type 吟選 大吟醸タイプ 火入れ
Junmai Daiginjo 40% Hyogo Toku A Yamada Nishiki 純米大吟醸40％ 兵庫特A山田錦 火入れ
Ryugetsu Junmai Daiginjo Hyogo Toku A Yamada Nishiki 龍月 純米大吟醸 兵庫特A山田錦 火入れ
The Toku A refers to highest grade of Yamada Nishiki money can buy from Hyogo. Powerful but elegant floral aromas punch out hints of aniseed. Impossibly smooth and delicate. Just exquisite. Falsely rumored to be blended with the sake they submit to the National New Sake Competition.
Honmaru Ginjo Type Gohyakumangoku Nama 本丸吟醸タイプ 生 五百万石
Tensen Asahitaka 天泉朝日鷹 火入れ
Only available in Yamagata. This is their everyman/workhorse tokubetsu honjozo. A sturdy, earthy, mushroom and rice driven sake that worked nicely slightly warmed and even room temperature. Not labelled as Juyondai.
Kuronawa Daiginjo 35% 黒縄 大吟醸 火入れ
Also only available in Yamagata. This was a gorgeous representation. Soft and fleeting. Bright with tingling acidity and lovely fresh pineapple and melon flavours this proved to be a crowd favourite.
Interestingly, most of the sake was from the previous brewing season. Most Juyondai sake, even their unpasteurized nama are rested for a maturation. Juyondai are reluctant to reveal the details of their maturation methods but it’s believed to be around a year. Also their pressing methods are for some reason kept under wraps. However after seeing a broad range like the other night it’s probably fair to guess they use all three of the standard types; Yabuta pressing, Fune-Shibori and Shizuku drip-pressing. But who knows, they may have another trick up their sleeve. Despite Juyondai’s popularity it can be difficult to find out much about them as they don’t have a website (who needs one when your sake sells itself?) and brewery tours are strictly off-limits. Even if one were to attempt a visit, there is no road signage directing to the brewery and even then the brewery itself bears no signage indicating it is indeed the home of Juyondai.
I like to consider myself impervious to trends and hype but make no mistake, Juyondai produce seriously wonderful sake. In this cynical world there will always be those to cry that it isn’t worth the hype (or the price) and that there are better sake makers out there if you’re willing to look. True, there are plenty of sake brands out there thoroughly deserving of the plaudits breweries like Juyondai receive and I wouldn’t go so far as to say you haven’t tried good sake till you’ve tried Juyondai or even that it’s my favourite sake but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the sake in the bottle. The line up I saw the other night was a master-class in style, balance and quality.
Would I recommend trying Juyondai if given the opportunity? In a heartbeat.