Thanks to the name of the "JUYONDAI GOLD LABEL", I had the honor to visit Nakata Hidetoshi.
By Ric Kwan
Today, the temperature was a bit hot. In this sunny afternoon at 4pm, I didn't hit the bar to grab an ice-cold beer. Instead, I was alone sitting on the 30th floor of Grand Hyatt Wanchai, looking out the window, savoring the beautiful views of Victoria Harbour, waiting to meet the Japanese celebrity - Mr. Nakata.
Visiting 300 Breweries in Japan – Someone got that unusual grit!
Mr. Nakata only made the decision to partner with Mr. Akitsuna Takagi of “Takagi Brewery” after visiting over 300 breweries in Japan. What kind of commitment and perseverance does it take to visit over 300 breweries? What if it’s not merely tasting some nice sake but studying in depth about the history, culture and sake brewing arts of each brewery? There are only 365 days in a year after all. Mr. Nakata has showed the world how he lives yet another legendary life outside the soccer ball field.
High Way is the Only Way
Having found the guru who makes supreme quality sake, Mr. Nakata immediately carved out a unique market position for the sake in the high-end spectrum without disrupting the traditional sake markets. Since the launch of <N Sake> back in 2013, Mr. Nakata had created a new high-end boutique market space on top of the old sake world. It is not just selling bottles of nice sake, in the game plan of Mr. Nakata, but also making connections with people who appreciate the art of sake. Nakata’s private sake brand can only be purchased from official distribution partners. Hong Kong, being one major market for high-quality sake, Mr. Nakata partners with Jebsen Beverage Co. Ltd. to distribute directly to selected restaurants and groups. You still cannot yet buy N Sake in any retail shop here in Hong Kong.
Technique is the new standard – out with the classification and rice polishing ratio
Nakata’s fine sake is not labeled with the percentage of rice polishing ratio, nor is it graded by Daiginjo, Ginjo, Junmai, Honjozo. It is only categorized as N Sake, JUYONDAI GOLD, BLACK, one more brand (which is due for release in 2019) to determine its price level. I asked Mr. Nakata whether he could tell the customer where GOLD & BLACK LABEL fits in the traditional brewing type: Junmai series or Honjozo series. Mr. Nakata’s answer is very interesting. He replied that this is a secret recipe, and sake should not be labeled by the two systems nor the traditional grades, and the most important thing is that it tastes good. In the words, Nakata’s sake gives consumers the guarantee of the supreme taste of fine sake.
Mr. Nakata also raised a question, which I also pondered for a long time, that "Do the drinkers have to fully understand the sake making process?" If one has not been in the sake making business, any claims of understanding is futile. Only the Toji (Sake Brewers) are true experts. For regular consumers, the ability to tell good sake from bad and some knowledge of the Japanese breweries would be sufficient.
Only with superior techniques and refined senses, a brewery can brew fine sakes. The magical product of water and rice is a tricky play by techniques. Mr. Nakata insisted “technique x sense” is the ultimate secret of brewing excellent sake.
Flavour, storage and transportation – Nakata’s key control
In fact, the flavour, storage and transportation are also the three points that Mr. Takagi pays a lot of attention to. Mr. Nakata thinks that the focus of the drinkers is now on the price, ultra-rice polishing and classification, but not on the handling part: storage and transportation. Very few distributors are handling sake in the right temperature range. That is why Mr. Nakata works with Jebsen Beverage Co. Ltd. who invested in facilities to properly store and deliver sake at -5 degrees Celsius from end to end. The general manager Mr. Ho said that the investment in these cold chain facilities was tremendous. However, he believes it stands out Jebsen’s professionalism in the market to win customers’ trust, as now it is trusted by Mr. Nakata.
The quality and taste of fine sake can only be maintained when stored in sub-zero temperatures. If the sake is stored in wine cellars between 13-15 degree Celsius, the quality will deteriorate in less than one month. Mr. Nakata travels all over the world. And when he travels, he tries sake at the top Japanese restaurants in each country he visits. However, he says that he has never tasted sake that is the same quality as in Japan. This is ultimately due to poor temperature control. In one case, Mr. Nakata said that he once tasted JUYONDAI with Mr. Takagi in a restaurant, and Mr. Takagi was disappointed by the changed flavour of the sake due to improper handling. This kind of handling requirements should be made very clear to sake sellers in order to satisfy consumer’s expectations.
For storage and transportation, it is, of course, more costly to operate sub-zero cold chain facilities in order to maintain the quality of the sake. Mr. Ho also explained the purpose to maintain quality control is also the reason for not doing ONLINE retail, but delivering directly to designate restaurants.
About JUYONDAI in the Hong Kong Retail Market
Mr. Nakata mentioned that Mr. Takagi is not exporting any JUYONDAI to the retail markets in Hong Kong or Mainland China nor does it plan to. The retail JUYONDAI products found in Hong Kong are all brought in by consumers or sold by online resale liquor stores from Japan. There is no guarantee of quality due to the lack of control in storage and transportation. As for price speculation, sake sellers are profiting from the fluctuating prices. At the moment, there are no retail stores or retail agents to sell JUYONDAI in Hong Kong.
It is possible that, in the future, Mr. Nakata's JUYONAI series will be marked with serial numbers on each bottle to easily track and trace the distribution. When this system is implemented properly, it would be convenient to weed out unauthorized sellers of Mr. Takagi’s sake in the Japanese market.
Mr. Nakata is very confident in the boutique sake market, but he will first ensures proper storage and transportation. Nama-shu (unpasteurized) will not be considered. Instead, he feels that his fine sake should not be only sold to Japanese cuisines, but also for Western restaurants and even more Asian restaurants – especially Chinese restaurants.
Before the interview, the author had a sake tasting session at the launch event of the same brand at Michelin starred Yee Tung Heen the Excelsior Hotel. The taste of Gold Label, as indicated by the only information available, Yoshikawa special A-graded Yamada-nishiki, mild orthonasal aroma, nose and palate like golden pear flavour. Different to Black Label, the flavour is similar to that of the pear. The palate is completely different from the BLACK LABEL. The acidity of GOLD LABEL is more pronounced. The biting sensation on both sides of the tongue is strong. I definitely look forward to tasting it again in the future.
By the end of the interview, Mr. Nakata gave me a passionate, firm handshake. I could feel the sincerity and energy of the mid fielder who was a game changer in field of soccer and now in the world of sake. How much of the sake landscape will he change? Life is like a soccer game. As the Chinese saying goes, “Only a man’s heart can be revealed in tough times”, I could definitely tell this is Mr. Nakata just by his handshake!