Japan’s Mogami River cuts through a land of austere beauty, where white herons perch among reeds and hayabusa falcons circle the skies. Its rushing waters were made famous by haiku master Matsuo Basho, whose 17th-century pilgrimage into the Japanese wilderness resulted in his masterpiece The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Perhaps unbeknownst to the poet at the time, a sake brewery in a village nestled in a bend of the mighty river was already decades into producing its own nihonshu.
Now, 14 generations later, the Takagi Shuzo brewery is making an elixir dubbed ‘maboroshi no sake,’ or ‘phantom sake,’ due to its rarity even in Tokyo or Osaka. Consistently ranked alongside Dassai as Japan’s best sake, Juyondai—its name means ‘14th generation’—achieves its greatness from sheer stubbornness in the harsh winter brewing season of Yamagata prefecture.
When I visit Takagi Shuzo, snow is swirling around the brewery’s soot-stained wooden frame and the sweet pungencies of fermenting rice fill the air. There is no sound but the hum of brewing machines and the occasional squawk of a circling hayabusa. Even the most clued-in Tokyo diners can be surprised to learn that a sake toasted in exclusive ryotei dining clubs—and as prized as a Romanée-Conti wine—hails from such a lonely and unforgiving place.
‘We’re asked why we don’t move from these hinterlands. Everyone wants to leave snow country,’ Tatsugoro Takagi, the 14th-generation head of the brewery, tells me. ‘But we’re staying put. Snow and cold—these are the ideal conditions for making sake.’
Takagi Shuzo began in 1615 but the tale of its ascent to the pinnacle of Japan’s sake world dates back only two decades, when Takagi’s son Akitsuna was summoned home from a job in a Tokyo department store by a family emergency. Back then Japanese sake houses almost exclusively entrusted their production to professionals called toji, master brewers hired from outside. The sudden retirement of the Takagi toji left the operation without a maestro, precisely at a time when the profession was dwindling due to its back-breaking demands.
With the house’s survival at stake, Akitsuna, at age 25, abandoned plans for a Tokyo career and took the near-unprecedented step of managing the sake production himself. Survival wasn’t the only thing on his mind. The scion of the Takagi house was determined to harness his family’s centuries-old traditions to create something entirely new—a sake whose first sip would make the drinker’s eyes widen in astonishment. What this meant specifically was a revolutionary departure from the style known as ‘tanrei kara-kuchi’—dry, clean and pure, then favored by connoisseurs—to a new type he called ‘hōjun uma-kuchi,’ or mellow with umami, the elusive fifth taste possibly best translated as the mmmmmm-factor.
All nihonshu are made of the same ingredients—rice, water, yeast and a mold called koji-kin. The process is complex, involving a technique called ‘multiple parallel fermentation.’ But the basic method of polishing, washing, soaking, steaming, fermenting and pressing does not vary from brewery to brewery. So what makes Juyondai unique?
One answer is the quality of water in snow country. Juyondai sakes are made with mountain spring water called sakura-shimizu, said to take 100 years to filter down from a nearby peak. Another is the rice itself. The brewery is at constant pains to source only the finest specialty sake rice, and polish it down to nearly a third of its original size so that it ends up looking more like a translucent gemstone than a grain of rice.
There are manufacturing secrets that the Takagi brewery guards fiercely. But the family says Juyondai’s success comes down to dogged dedication—and a refusal to increase production no matter how strong the demand. ‘No compromises,’ Akitsuna Takagi likes to say. ‘Above all it’s about love and grit.’
Juyondai comes in about 20 different varieties. Among the most coveted is Juyondai Ryusen, a junmai daiginjou—sake’s highest rank—that experts describe as slightly floral with hints of vanilla. Another is Juyondai Soukou, a half-notch lower in rank in the daiginjou class. These so-called unicorn sakes can change hands for thousands of dollars—more than 10 times the listed retail price—due to their rarity and cult status. A more realistic option is Juyondai Honmaru, a celebrated sake in the lighter tokubetsu honjozo class. It contains all the attributes of mellow umami the Takagi Shuzo brewery is known for.
There are also experimental limited-edition brews that never make it beyond Yamagata’s borders. Customers have to travel to snow country for any chance of savoring them, but it’s worth the journey—and useful to keep in mind that the harshness of the winters here also contributes to the belly-warming mellowness of Juyondai.
The purity of biting snow-country air, the elder Takagi says, penetrates ‘the pith of the grain of rice.’
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