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Sake Reviews

Taste Testing Juyondai, Japan’s Biggest Cult Sake: Ginsen Ginjo, Honmaru Honjozo, Shichidare Nijikkan

 

People are fond of making prestige comparisons. An artist may be described as “The Andy Warhol of Japan” (Takeshi Murakami), or a director “The Korean Alfred Hitchcock” (Bong Joon-Ho). In the domain of wine and spirits we have the "Rolls-Royce of Whisky" (Macallan) or “Louis Vuitton of Baijiu” (Kweichow Moutai). And when it comes to sake, the name that often surfaces in such prestige comparisons is Juyondai.

It's called “The DRC of Sakes” by many. Hailing from a 17th century sake brewery in Yamagata Prefecture called Takagi Shuzo, Juyondai is a cult sake brand often likened by connoisseurs in East Asian markets to the revered Burgundy producer Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and it’s easy to see why. Almost every sake lover in Japan would have heard of Juyondai, but few have sampled it. The brand is consistently ranked by sake enthusiasts as their favourite brewery on the nation’s largest and most popular sake review platform, saketimes.jp, and it has occupied that top spot for more than a decade.

 

 

A bottle of Juyondai is also synonymous with limited production, virtually impossible to obtain at a reasonable price in most parts of Japan. It has a fervent following of sake fanatics willing to make a special trip from Tokyo to a minor town in Yamagata just for a taste of the elusive sake.

 

 

I appreciate the sentiment behind this comparison, but it also strikes me as somewhat lacking in nuance, perhaps even a slightly Eurocentric perspective. Firstly, this comparison is largely lost on those unfamiliar with wines who wouldn’t know about the esteemed status of DRC. The analogy also seems to imply that Juyondai, by being likened to DRC, is somehow a little less renowned - a notion that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, while both DRC and Takagi Shuzo boast long and illustrious histories, it's worth noting that the latter is actually established over 200 years earlier than the renowned Burgundy winery.

 

The Takagi family crest (right) closely resembles the logo applied to certain bottles of their flagship sake brand Asahitaka (left). 

 

Established in 1615 during the Edo period, Takagi Shuzo traces its lineage back to ancestors who were high-ranking officials and aristocrats in Kyoto in the 13th century. After the imperial court's defeat by the Samurai class in the Ōnin War, the family fled to present-day Yamagata and changed their surname to Takagi to throw off their enemies. The name "Takagi" itself is symbolic, with "Taka" meaning hawk and "Gi" meaning tree, representing strength and resilience of the clan. In their new home, the Takagi family cleared thousands of square meters of land for sake brewing and established Takagi Shuzo. They also adopted a new family crest which features two crossed hawk feathers, reflecting the family's heritage and resilience. A very similar crest is used on their flagship sake brand, Asahitaka.

 

 

The brewery has been widely respected in the industry since the 80s’. Its 14th-generation owner, Tatsugoro Takagi, was a visionary in the sake world, credited for creating three famous strains of sake rice with different characteristics: Sake Mirai), Ushu Homare, and Tatsu no Otoshiko (literally, Child of the Dragon) which is exclusively used by Takagi Brewery.

 

Tatsugoro Takagi, the 14th generation owner of Takagi Shuzo, was a respected figure within the sake industry.

 

But it was the direction of Tatsugoro-san's son, Akitsuna Takagi, who took over in the 1990s, that led the brewery’s name to national and international acclaim. Akitsuna-san, then only 21 years old, faced a challenging situation. Japan was in the midst of an economic downturn following the collapse of the economic bubble, and the brewery struggled to make ends meet. At this inconvenient time, their toji (master brewer) fell seriously ill and had to retire, and the brewery simply couldn't afford to hire a replacement.

 

 

Akitsuna-san, undeterred, decided to take matters into his own hands. He immersed himself in studying sake brewing and became both brewery manager and toji. At that time, the dominant trend in the Japanese sake market was to drink Niigata-style sake with a "tanrei karakuchi" (light and dry) profile. As a Hail Mary, Akitsuna-san chose to take the brewery down a different path. He decided to produce rich and sweet daiginjo sake characterised by ripe fruit aromas and a full-bodied, rounded profile.

 

 

Let's just say, this gamble was like introducing a fruit punch to a room full of people only drinking black coffee. Old-timers initially grumbled about the lack of a good, teeth-staining, mouth puckering dryness. But a new generation of sake drinkers were lining up for a sip of Juyondai's smooth, fruity goodness. It turns out that people did not want their sake to always pack the razor-sharp punch of a Samurai sword. Sometimes, you just want a delicious drink that goes down easy, and Juyondai delivered.

The gamble paid off handsomely. The Juyondai brand was born, and its unique flavour profile quickly gained a devoted following, helping to pull the brewery out of financial straits.

 

 

So, what's in a name? In the world of sake, there’s usually a lot. For instance, the brewery’s other flagship brand, Asahitaka (朝日鷹), translates to something like “Hawk in the Morning Sun”. But unlike existing sake brands that love to flex their linguistic muscles with complex kanji characters, Akitsuna-san decided to keep it refreshingly simple for Juyondai. Written as 十四代, Juyondai was a name that even a Japanese pre-schooler could write. It literally means "14th Generation", a tribute to Akitsuna-san's father's generation who laid the groundwork for the company's modern success.

 

 

Akitsuna-san didn't spend countless hours brainstorming in a dimly lit room for this name. In an interview, he explained that he drew from his experience working at Isetan, the well-known Japanese department store for high-end goods. Putting himself in the shoes of someone browsing the aisles, he felt that the name Juyondai was easy to understand and even easier to remember. Without much deliberation, he thought, "This is it."

But, as with anything that achieves cult status, Juyondai has its detractors. Considering its astronomical prices that go into the thousands (in USD, not Yen, mind you), some sake connoisseurs are a little cynical about the brand’s success.

 

 

It's undeniable that much of Juyondai's success is down to Akitsuna-san's savvy strategies. Besides the memorable name, the sake keeps its flavour profile very consistent through its range. They're almost all sweet, bright, and expressive, with melon and stone fruit aromas and delicate floral notes. They stand out in stark contrast to the drier sakes that have been the norm, and drinkers who want a Juyondai tend to know exactly what flavour profile they were getting when they order a Juyondai.

 

 

Adding to the allure is the air of mystique surrounding the brewery. There's no website, and brewery tours are strictly off-limits. Even if you were determined to make a pilgrimage, good luck finding it. There are no road signs pointing the way, and the brewery itself is unmarked. This elusive nature only adds to the mystery for Juyondai and Takagi Shuzo, making it all the more desirable for those who manage to get their hands on a bottle.

I have with me 3 different ranges of Juyondai.

We’ll begin the review with firstly the Ginsen Ginjo that is made with 50%-polished Yamadanishiki rice.

Next, we’ll have Juyondai’s most iconic original label that popularised the brand – the Honmaru Honjozo Hiden-Tamakaeshi Tokubetsu. This is a slightly dryer label (though it retains that signature Juyondai sweetness) made from 55%-polished Gohyakumangoku rice and bottled in the namazumeshu style (also known as semi-unpasteurised) which sees the sake pasturised just before vat-maturation, but not bottle-pasturised before shipment (as most other pasturised sakes would be). This gives it a fresher and livelier dryness similar to namazake, albeit with a mellower taste profile. This is also a honjozo grade sake which is made with alcohol specially extracted from the sake lees of Takagi Shuzo to add extra complexity.

Finally, we end on a very high point with the ultra premium label, Shichidare Nijikkan Junmai Daiginjo. Not only is this made from rice painstakingly polished down to 35%, this is made with Aiyama rice, a prized strain that is especially difficult to cultivate due to the tendency for its plant to fall over and break, and equally difficult to polish due to its brittle grain that shatters easily. That said, the Aiyama is prized for its ability to exhibit characteristics of both of its parent strains – the Yamadanishiki and Omachi varieties, with their sakes typically fruity and full-bodied with a distinctive rice-like sweetness.

This sake is filtered using the bag dripping technique, and “Shichidare Nijikkan” of the label actually suggests that only 7 parts of sake is extracted from every 20 parts of rice meal. This filtration method extracts only the most refined parts of the rice meal as sake.

Let’s give them a taste!

Juyondai Ginsen Ginjo |十四代吟撰吟醸– Review 

 

Tasting Notes

Nose: A burst of vibrant banana sweetness, reminiscent of a banana split, interwoven with notes of crisp red Fuji apples and juicy melons, counterbalanced by a subtle hint of dryness.

Palate: Medium-bodied with a luxuriously syrupy, viscous texture that coats the palate. This bursts with flavour – it’s very sweet and round (with minimal acidity), showcasing ripe white peaches, succulent green grapes, and a delicate hint of sweet vanilla cream.

Finish: Fairly light on the finish yet still with a delicate sweet, once again with minimal acidity. A gentle dryness does gradually emerge and lingers subtly on the back of the palate.

 

 

My Thoughts:

This is a truly lovely and flavourful sake. Its got a clean profile is marked by very little earthiness or umami, allowing the pure and defined sweetness to shine. This sweetness evokes a delightful array of flavours, from peaches and vanilla to the initial burst of banana.

While this sake leans towards the sweeter side, its richness and purity make it incredibly satisfying to savour on its own. It’s sweet but there’s a crispness to it that never gets it cloying.

This is perfectly enjoyable on its own. But if paired with food, this sake should also go well with lighter to medium-rich dishes, such as sashimi or grilled fish to complement its delicate aroma without covering them.

My Rating: 8/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Juyondai, Honmaru Honjozo Hiden Tamakaeshi Tokubetsu |十四代 本丸 本釀造 秘伝玉返し 特別 – Review

 

Tasting Notes

Nose: The aroma is bright and clean, offering a good dose of sweet richness. Playful notes of green grape gummies dominate, complemented by a subtle hint of soft cheese.

Palate: Sweeter on the palate than the nose suggests. It’s got a medium-plus body with an almost syrupy texture, thought slightly less thick than the Ginsen Ginjo. Green grape gummies reappear, intertwined with juicy melon and a light minerality reminiscent of spring water, then balanced by the subtlest touch of steamed jasmine rice earthiness.

Finish: Green grape sweetness gradually recedes, leaving behind a subtle dryness that calls to mind lemon zest.

 

 

My Thoughts:

This is another equally excellent bottle from Juyondai. While it continues the theme of clean, melony sweetness, this is noticeably lighter bodied and features a slightly more mineral, rice-forward aroma.

Juyondai's signature sweetness may not appeal to everyone. So this particular label offers some balance. It offers the brand’s characteristic fruitiness but moderated sweetness with lighter body and that subtle rice character with zestiness. This is probably the most all-rounder expression from Juyondai.

My Rating: 8/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Juyondai Shichidare Nijikkan Junmai Daiginjo |十四代七垂二十贯 纯米大吟酿– Review

 

Tasting Notes

Nose: Thick and rich, with a heady wave of candied sweetness reminiscent of Chinese maltose candy. Notes of vanilla and yogurt intertwine, while a subtle hint of banana adds some depth.

Palate: Surprisingly elegant from the get go. Opens with a clean, bright sweetness then followed by a cascade of white peaches, pears, melons, and lychees, evolving seamlessly into a richer, more syrupy experience. Hints of banana, honey and sweet citrus notes emerge, balanced by the gentlest touch of pomelo rind bitterness. Light tannins and a deep rice essence sweetness reminiscent of a rice pudding round out the profile.

Finish: Lingers for quite a bit against a backdrop of rich white peach sweetness, accented by a delicate soy sauce savouriness and nuttiness. A delicate dryness emerges, accompanied by hints of pepper and lemon zest cleansing the palate.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Just phenomenal. It has an elegant evolution that reveals a multitude of dimensions, all while presenting this very well-integrated palate with every note in the right place. While undoubtedly sweet, this sake offers so much more than just plain sugar. Its got a really well-defined fruitiness, showcasing an array of fresh, bright notes like melon, pear, and peach along with that addition of slightly tart lychees that just makes this unforgettable.

The use of Aiyama rice also seems to contribute to the thick rice sweetness that is which is further enhanced by subtle nutty, slightly rancio oxidative notes that were most probably developed through gentle aging of the sake.

This is a masterpiece sake that deserves to be savoured on its own undisturbed by other foods or drink

Rating: 9/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Final Thoughts

Juyondai is truly remarkable in its ability to make a predominantly sweet style of sake with tons of layer and complexity, and replicate that signature melony sweetness in its various labels.

It is true that the hype surrounding Juyondai has reached some pretty ridiculous levels in Japan. However, the bulk of its critics seem to fundamentally misunderstand that whole point of Juyondai is to carve a wholly different path from the existing dry style sake by offering a richer and sweeter profile. Criticizing Juyondai for being too sweet is almost like eating sashimi and then complaining that the chef had not seasoned it.

To other cynics who argue that Juyondai isn't worth the hype or its astronomical prices (sometimes more than a thousand dollars for a single bottle), I pose this question: Do you consider premier wines like Chateau Lafite or Romanée-Conti, which also retail for several thousand dollars a bottle, to be "overhyped" and not worth their price tags? If not, then why should premier sakes like Juyondai be any different?

These sakes certainly live up to their cult status and I would recommend any sake lover to try a Juyondai.

 

@CharsiuCharlie