Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The real story of Juyondai, a mysterious cult sake that isn't actually rare or good

This is the part of Takagi Shuzo's compound, where Juyondai is made, that they would prefer that you see.
One of the most-sought cult brands in the beverage world is ... not what it seems. Not in a good way. Even though it should be obvious to anyone drinking it, nobody wants to stand up and say this stuff is not good anymore.

Moreover, its appeal is based on a carefully cultivated image that is simply not true. I will show you, with photographs.

A "limited edition" Juyondai
This blog post isn't what I set out to do when I planned to write about Juyondai sake. I expected to write a story for Wine Searcher about the brand, which makes two of the 12 most-searched sakes in the world. It is THE cult sake, and has been for more than a decade.

Many of my readers at Wine Searcher use the site to find expensive wines. It's sometimes my job to write profiles of the wineries that make them, and often I squelch my personal taste because telling people a wine they love isn't great not only isn't my job, but is kind of rude.

As a result, I sometimes visit -- or am turned away from -- some of the world's most exclusive wineries. Some, especially in California, are open about their marketing strategy being based on scarcity. Every wine lover has heard of Screaming Eagle, but few have sampled it, which is why it costs $2500 a bottle in stores. People often ask if it's worth the money. I've tried it, and it's good wine. I'd rather have 50 bottles of good $50 wines, but it's not my place to tell people how to spend their money.

You need to know this background to know why I went to rural Yamagata prefecture, near the city of Murayama, to visit Takagi Shuzo, the makers of Juyondai, even though they told me the day before they would not speak to me. I thought, I'll knock on the door and maybe they'll meet me anyway. If nothing else, I can take some exterior photos of this quirky little sake brewery and write a story without their participation like this one I did about Screaming Eagle.

What I found was something I didn't expect at all. And I think the sake world needs to know it.



The main office building at Takagi Shuzo. Wait until you see what's behind it.

First, here is the story, as we know it, of Juyondai. Juyondai means "14th generation," as the current president is the 14th generation owner of Takagi Shuzo brewery, which started in 1615. But while Takagi Shuzo is old, the brand Juyondai started when current proprietor Akitsuna Takagi took over while still in his 20s. The brewery now makes a lot of different bottlings of Juyondai and there are many stories of how and why they are different. (I now know these stories are all likely apocryphal.)

The first time I tried a Juyondai sake, about 10 years ago in a stylish Tokyo izakaya, the server told me each Juyondai bottling is based on a separate strain of rice grown in an individual paddy, like the wines of Burgundy. Most sake is not made this way so this was immediately appealing to me. And 10 years ago, I remember liking the bottle we had a lot: it was fruity and fresh and delicious.

Juyondai was not internationally known then. The market for sake in China had barely begun to take off, and sakes that sell for hundreds of dollars were still unknown. At some point, Juyondai mastered those markets. Exactly when, I'm not sure, and neither is anybody outside the company.

Takagi Shuzo actively discourages any accurate information about it. There's no website, and they accept communications only by fax. My editor at Wine Searcher laughed at me when I asked if we have a fax machine and said, "We can lend you a carrier pigeon." The old tech is another way of keeping the brewery mysterious. I eventually managed to get a fax (in Japanese, of course) off to Takagi Shuzo, and they sent a return fax saying they would not accept a visit.

This was not just to me -- Takagi Shuzo doesn't allow any journalists any information, which is remarkable in modern Japan. It's a strategy. So it's very hard to get information online about Juyondai, even if you search in Japanese, which I can, especially with the help of my wife.

There are only two stories we could find about visits to Juyondai. One was written in about 2009 by Akiko Tomoda for the website All About Gurume ("gourmet"). Tomoda got the only known interview of Akitsuna Takagi, along with an interview of his father Tatsugoro Takagi.

Tatsugoro was a big man in his little rural community. He became a local politician -- this is not uncommon for sake company presidents -- and remains very popular there, although he is very old and, locals say, has not been seen publicly in years.

Akitsuna had a different marketing idea from his father from the beginning. He grew up at the brewery, then went to agricultural university in Tokyo. From there, he got a job at the luxury retailer Isetan.

Juyondai, at the time, was a name the brewery had trademarked but was not yet using. It called its sakes Kuronawa, after an obscure local rice. Juyondai is a very easy word in Japanese; a kindergartner can grasp it.

"I was working for Isetan," Akitsuna Takagi told Tomoda. "Therefore I could see the name Juyondai through a third-person's eye. I thought Juyondai, the name, could have very big impact. It's very easy to remember. Therefore I thought I want to use Juyondai as the brand name. Usually sake uses very old kanji (characters), and is hard to read. Juyondai is very easy to understand. That's why I thought, 'This is it.' "

Akitsuna Takagi also shared thoughts on the style of sake he would make.

"When I was working in Isetan, Niigata sake was popular," he told Tomoda. "Clean, dry sake was popular. After that popularity ended, I came back to the brewery. If I started working one year earlier or one year later, the Juyondai flavor wouldn't have been born. I think that was great timing."

Takagi Shuzo's toji (master brewer) quit, so according to Tomoda's story, in 1993, at the age of 25, Akitsuna took over. At first, he struggled: Tomoda says Akitsuna had a stomach problem and had to call 911.

"Fortunately my first sake was very popular because people were tired of crisp, dry sake," Akitsuna Takagi told Tomoda. "We also did very powerful sake selling."

That is the truth. Whatever they said about Juyondai, people lapped it up.

The marketing was very different from other brands. Most breweries have different types of sake -- they'll have a ginjo, a junmai ginjo, a daiginjo, a junmai daiginjo, etc. -- but they don't have many different bottlings of the same type of sake. Juyondai specializes in junmai daiginjos and it makes a lot of different ones.

Originally, some of these separate bottlings were allegedly named after different strains of rice. That's not the case anymore. If you go to Yamagata and you eat in local restaurants, you will come across lots of different Juyondai sakes that supposedly are available only there. The same is true in some establishments in Tokyo. But with little public information about the products and no way to check, it's impossible to know how many different bottlings there are.

And -- keep this question in mind -- it's impossible to know whether or not they are actually different. There are no horizontal tastings of Juyondai. Retailers and restaurants don't get to taste what is sold to other stores.

In a way Juyondai is marketed like the winery Sine Qua Non, which is very popular with Wine Searcher readers. Sine Qua Non calls all of its wines, every vintage, by a different name, and people overpay at auctions to collect them all. But there are, frequently, meet-ups to taste Sine Qua Non wines, and I have no doubt that they are all different.

Juyondai as served at Mizutori. After I took this, I was told, No more photos.
Some restaurateurs are heavily invested in promoting Juyondai's myth of scarcity.

There's a restaurant in Yamagata called Mizutori that offers a full Juyondai pairing menu with different bottlings -- but the proprietor put a white bag over the sakes and refused to let me take photos of them or even read the labels to see what they are.

The first two sakes were overly sweet and unbalanced and I thought that maybe the restaurateur was trying to chase me away with them, and it worked: I'll put up with a lot for good sake, but not for unbalanced sake. That should have been my first inkling something was up with Juyondai but I chalked it up to an obnoxious restaurateur.

We went to another Yamagata restaurant, Sakana Ichi, where we ordered two (presumably) different Juyondai sakes. They were not cheap, and they were not good. It wasn't bad storage: one of them came in a sealed 300 ml bottle.

In any declaration of beverage quality, you have to account for personal taste. Robert Parker was the world's most influential wine critic, but I don't share his taste, and he likely hated some wines I would enjoy. I have often had to write stories on assignment about wineries Parker recommended and I kept my personal taste out of it. But in those stories, I never got the feeling that the wines were actually bad. Parker liked a certain style -- high-alcohol, low-acid, fruit bombs -- and I came to recognize these wines as "Parker wines" and wrote about them accordingly. I did not call them bad.

I'm calling Juyondai sakes bad. I'll say it again. Juyondai is now bad sake.

How can I say that? Because they are unbalanced. A lot of great sake is on the sweet side, but these are cloying and have no acidity. Perhaps on the first taste you might think, "That's sweet and nice!" I could not finish most of the Juyondais I ordered. 

As for my credentials to make this judgment, I have been writing about sake as long as I have been writing about wine (albeit less frequently), and I have judged sake competitions in Japan and Hawaii.

This story could just be a rant; some blogger doesn't like some product. But I went the extra 10 miles, literally. And I can show you with photos that it's not about personal taste.

An actual door at the Takagi Shuzo complex. You might think Juyondai is made by elves, if you don't look at the next photo
I went to Takagi Shuzo. I wanted to find out why the sakes are the way they are, even though they refused to see me. I took a taxi out into the countryside without an appointment.

And I learned what they have been hiding.


This is where Juyondai is actually produced

Takagi Shuzo is enormous! This is no artisanal brewery.

Dewazakura for comparison: office, brewery and warehouse
We visited a Yamagata brewery I like, Dewazakura, the day before. Dewazakura makes 2 million bottles a year (and fesses up to it). Takagi Shuzo, maker of "small production" sakes, is at least five times as big as Dewazakura. And Takagi Shuzo has at least six enormous outdoor metal tanks, which Dewazakura did not have.

To be clear, you cannot make limited-edition sakes in enormous metal tanks, not if you want them to taste different from each other. Dewazakura has tanks of various sizes for its sake lineup, but none of them are building-height. Maybe Takagi Shuzo has smaller tanks too. But something has to come out of those giant outdoor tanks at Takagi Shuzo, and it's likely to be something homogenous.

Visiting Takagi Shuzo is like thinking you're going to Screaming Eagle and finding yourself at Sutter Home. Except I have been to Sutter Home, and they don't try to hide their operation. There's nothing wrong with modern equipment. But Takagi Shuzo is an enormous sake factory, and that's not what I expected, nor what its fans expect.

One warehouse where "small production" Juyondai sake is stored.
 I mentioned that there are two visits to Takagi Shuzo memorialized on the Internet in Japanese. A blogger called "Demon traveling to eat money" did the same thing I did: he just went there, to see what he could see.

"I ran 10 km for my health," the demon wrote. "There was no appointment, and I don't have any connection. All I could do was take photos from outside. Not many photos have been taken from outside so it might be interesting for you (to readers).

"It was more modern than I was imagining," the demon wrote. "At the same time you see the wooden building, so it must be an old building. After the gate you see big tanks. It doesn't look like you expect, this big building in the countryside, so this shows us how well Juyondai sells."

Yes, it does indeed.

I could only take photos from the road, and the compound is huge. I don't know what these buildings are.

The taxi driver we got on the return to the train station gave me more information about Juyondai than anyone else, including a number of sake sommeliers in Tokyo. I don't usually quote taxi drivers, but this guy spoke some truths.

Final mystery: why is this sign in English?
"I don't drink Juyondai. I don't think it's good," he said. "People like it because they think they should like it. But even they don't say it's delicious."

The taxi driver, who lives in the area, says the big tanks were built about five or six years ago, which he says coincided with the disappearance of Tatsugoro Takagi from public life.

"After the son (Akitsuna) took over, he and some coordinator made a strategy to make it the 'maboroshi' ('mirage') sake. It's a strategy. And they succeeded. Shop owners even in town can only get Juyondai if they have a connection. Even if they know it's too sweet, they can sell it because it's Juyondai."

I don't know if the timeline for the big tanks is true or not, and I have no way of checking. But it would explain a lot about why Juyondai sake is bad now.

The sakes really were good at first. Then, apparently Takagi Shuzo ramped up production.

Artisanal sake needs to be carefully watched, especially if it's sweet, because sugar can lead to bacteriological problems. Industrial sake can be made much more cheaply, quickly and safely -- and those tanks look like industrial sake. There's nothing wrong with it, but you can't expect complexity or delicacy.

That said, industrial sake should be more drinkable than the Juyondais I had. I had better sake on an airplane, in coach class, from a can, than any of the Juyondais I tasted. That also fits a timeline of a recent ramp-up in production.

Remember, so far as we know, Takagi Shuzo hasn't had a toji (master brewer) in more than two decades. Akitsuna Takagi proved his worth as a small-production brewer. Maybe he's just still in the process of figuring out how to transition from making Champagne to making Coca-Cola.

I'll finish this piece at Sakana Ichi, the Yamagata restaurant with six Juyondais on the list, where I had two and found them wanting. My wife asked the server, "Can you tell me which of these Juyondais is the driest?"

She said, "Sorry, all Juyondais are sweet." And she went to fetch the restaurant's sake expert, who came over smiling and told me that a lot of people come just to drink Juyondai. He poured me a glass of a local sake I didn't know, Abekameji Junmai Daiginjo, made from local Kamenoo rice, an old variety. It was SO much better: it had sweetness, sure, but it also actually had acidity, and even though it had a higher alcohol percentage than the last Juyondai, it tasted less alcoholic. I smiled at the sake sommelier. He smiled back.

"A lot of people come here from Tokyo and they just want Juyondai," he said.

"But you have better sakes," I said.

He smiled. "When you're done with that one, let me pour you another," he said. And he did. And it wasn't Juyondai.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

8 comments:

Jack Everitt said...

This is great, Blake.

S in Oakland said...

Great story Blake. Courage in the face of the emperor.

Kinsale Mead said...

Fascinating story. If only we could use a similar strategy to get people buying lots of our artisanal meads...which are actually lovely.

Elin McCoy said...

Bravo Blake.
Totally enjoyed this and think there should be more stories like this.
Elin

guren said...

Well done, Blake. Your article has convinced me that the Juyondai of yore is gone and it's not coming back. It's a shame because it used to be really good. I've ordered it several times over the past few years, and experienced the same cloying, unbalanced sweetness that you did. I thought that I was just getting unlucky because Juyondai has several different labels, but it sounds as if something more nefarious is at play.

Unknown said...

That is eye-opening. Thank you for the info. There are actually a lot more sake out there that are really enjoyable. But, gotta hand it to them for their marketing ploy.

Unknown said...

Thats all its is after all.

tjgriffin said...

Well done!