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Juyondai Sake – Cult or Con?

POSTED ON 06/09/2019

When I asked Antony Moss MW, to check for any conspicuous absences from the profiles section of my book, Sake and the Wines of Japan, he said Hong Kong readers would expect the super luxury brand Juyondai to be there. Keen then to include Juyondai among my profiles, I wrote to Rebekah Wilson Lye, PR for Takagi Shuzo Brewery’s cult brand, with a list of questions and a request for tasting samples to which she had responded: ‘Only 1000 bottles of N are made each year, and they are only sold overseas. The official retail price starts from around ¥150,000 (£1,140), but the sake is not retail - it is sold directly to high-end restaurants. As it is such a rare & coveted sake, N is fully allocated before each release. Unfortunately, we do not have samples’.

Juyondai NJuyondai N

Ah well, having tried and failed, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation from Antony Moss, who had managed to get hold of some samples on a trip to Japan for a tasting in London. There was breathless anticipation in advance of this tasting of the Yamagata brewery’s cult sakes. As we shuffled into the tasting room on the top floor of the WSET’s premises in Bermondsey Street, anticipation was heightened by the fact that while the brahmins of the UK’s sake trade were all, or almost all, present, it soon emerged that no-one, not even Antony Moss MW himself, had so much as entered the portals of this most discreet of Japanese sake breweries. So what we did know about Juyondai was what Antony was able to tell us.

What do we know then? Juyondai is widely respected in the industry, its 14th generation owner Tatsugoro Takagi having created three rice strains: Sake Mirai (meaning Future Sake); Tatsu no Otoshiko (literally, child of the dragon), only used by Takagi Brewery; and Ushu Homare. On his return to the brewery (founded 1615) in 1993, Akitsuna Takagi, took control of production at the age of 25. At a time when the sake market was dominated by the dry ‘tanrei kara-kuchi’ style, he created hōjun uma-kuchi, a mellow, umami style that won gold at the Annual Japan Sake Awards. He called it Juyondai, meaning 14th generation, in homage to his father Tatsugoro.

In this way, he became a role model, inspiring a new generation to take control of their family brewery’s production. Today, Takagi takes care to source only the finest quality raw materials: Yamada-nishiki rice from Yokawa and Aiyama, Omachi from Akaiwa and their own strains of rice developed for the climate of Yamagata. Officially it doesn't export, and Juyondai’s international releases are labelled without special grade designation or polishing rates to focus on their experience of sake in the glass. Only alcohol percentage, basic ingredients (sake rice variety) and pasteurisation method are listed. All sake is bottled after pressing and stored at the brewery. In total, Takagi Brewery produces roughly 40,000 cases a year, including its limited edition luxury export brand sakes, and has strict distribution conditions requiring temperature-controlled storage / handling and sales control. It is sold to authorised distributors and sold on to restaurants.

Officially it doesn't export, while unofficially, it has three products with an export label red, black and gold, corresponding to the domestic products, and then there’s the super-cult N, which is the ex-footballer, Hidetoshi Nakata’s, baby. Unfortunately the black label smashed in transit, so what we had on the table to taste were the red, the gold and the N, the latter being export only and linked with the project of managing the supply chain with an insistence of refrigeration at -5°C at all times. Only about 1000 bottles of N are made and sold at $2,150 (£1,750) on first release.

Tasting Notes

Juyondai Red (export label)

Clear, water white, aromatic fragrance in floral and fruity vein, distinct ginjo-ka, with also a savoury, ricey note to it, and something akin to clove spice; an attractive richness, textured riciness even, on the palate, with a distinctly opulent note to it, very pure, nicely balanced overall, if just a tad overcooked on the sweetness side, a little acidity kicking in on the finish to salvage balance. 91 / 100

Juyondai Gold (export label)

Clear, water white, subtle yet fresh and intense floral, spicy fragrance, also an intriguing spicy note close to clove, or perhaps clove pinks floral, with a balancing savoury note to it, rich and intense on the palate, spice-infused notes, a peachy, glossy textural quality making it slip down all too easily, albeit also just a tad overcooked, although a touch of citrusy acidity helps again on the finish for balance. 92 / 100

Juyondai ‘N’ 2018 (export only)

Clear, water white, subtle and sitting very much in the same invitingly fragrant line of floral and spicy aromatics, almost perfumed in fact, again with that trademark ripe, juicy pear opulence on the palate, an appetising umami note and purity and silkiness of texture, and again with just enough balancing acidity to prevent mawkishness. 91 / 100

Final comments

While I could see the virtues of these sakes, it would be fair to say that they were not my style. I would like to have seen more acidity and even umami, and I found the exotic opulence too good to be true for my own personal taste. On the distribution issue, I applaud Tagaki Brewery for its strict adherence to quality control in the distribution, even if it makes it difficult for distributors and restaurants alike to maintain such stringent requirements. It was ironic then that the packaging of N was not all is was cracked up to be, not only in the naff black bottle, but more importantly from a quality control point of view, the fact that it had the potential for leakage. On price, I find the price asked for N grotesque, but at the same time, I recognise that if there’s a demand among a certain type of consumer for a limited edition cult product, that doesn’t necessarily make it a con.

Juyondai NJuyondai N

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