In the present day Miyagi prefecture controlled at that time by a very powerful Samurai Lord (Sengoku Daimyo) answering to the name of Date Masamune (pronounced "Daté Massamuné"). The Sendaï region was his kingdom and his wealth was due to rice growing, a real money at the time but also a symbol of financial power.
Date Masamune was an amateur of art and good food, a gourmet and more particularly an amateur of a fermented rice wine that was commonly known as sake.
The lord in question, to guarantee a constant supply of sake, charged six financially stable families with the responsibility of creating sake breweries and to elaborate high quality sake so as to supply himself and his family. To do this the families had to buy the best, most expensive rice from him. The fruit of this rice trade made it possible for him to maintain his armies.
The Isawa family therefore founded Katsuyama, at his request, and started the production of traditional sake for him.
Since then three and a half centuries have passed and of the 6 elected families only Isawa, owner and producer of the KATSUYAMA brand, has survived at the top of the range and brilliantly continue to do so managed today by the 12th generation, in the person of Jihei Isawa.
It is important to note that the Date family still exists and the present 34th generation continues to be supplied by the Isawa family!
Why the name Katsuyama ?
Katsu means "win" in Japanese and Yama is the translation of "mountain".
Katsuyama can therefore be translated as "beat the mountain". It is a symbol of greatness and honour. For the samuraï, it was very important to win battles and wars with honour.
Such is the signification the Isawa family wants to give to its sake business.
The headpiece worn by samuraï's women at the time can also be remembered, the art to tie back their hair called Katsuyama Mage ( pronounced "magué").
In the 12th century Japanese spirits fell into 6 categories:
At the bottom of the pyramid was shôchû (distilled rice spirit)
Then came "vins de table" type sake (very often diluted or blended)
Then "vins de pays" type sake
Then the "appellations d’origine"
Finally at the top of the pyramid, the top of the range with first the "Omiki" or "premiers crus" and then the Gozenshu ( pronounced Gozènchou ).
The Isawa family, Katsuyama owner and producer only made Omiki and Gozenchu and maintain this specialty to today.
The omiki were essentially reserved for the religious orders and were served in Buddhist and Shinto temples.
The Gozenshus were exclusively reserved for the lords. Production was very limited. With a very good, high quality rice, it is only possible to produce a very small quantity of sake.
At the beginning of the 19th century, with the end of the Edo era, the lords and samuraï disappeared and with them the Gozenshu !
Nowadays all the sake produced belongs to the first four levels of the aforementioned pyramid. Sake is very often blended with producers trying to find a particular aroma so as to set themselves apart from competitors forgetting in so doing the essence of good sake production, that is to give value, improve, and honour the aroma and fragrance, flavour of very high quality rice.
From now on I will refrain from using the word sake and use a term much more noble and respectful of ancestral traditions and know how: LE NIHON SHU.
Nowadays the word sake has almost taken on a pejorative connotation. For the majority of westerners, it is associated with the idea of a strong alcoholic drink with no stature, numbing the mouth with its badly distilled alcohol, an unpleasant and irritated throat, a dry mouth reminiscent of alembics!!! The reason is simple : the majority of Asian European restaurants have usurped the name sake by associating it with drinks with no fineness, worthy of bad drinking houses but not the subtlety of any refined table with any self-respect.
Jihei Isawa, Chairman of Katsuyama, and ex-owner of the fabulous Restaurant Shozan in Paris
(now closed) who trained as a wine waiter, was surprised at the beginning of the 2000s, to see the names of the finest wines of the planet on the wine lists of the best restaurants in Paris and Europe without the least mention of sake !
So, he decided to go back to Japan and in concertation with the Date family renewed the production and sale of the best Nihon Shu, the Gozenshu. At the beginning of the 2000s, and for the 10 following years, Katsuyama sake was awarded the highest distinctions in Japan, gold medals awarded by the Ministry of Agriculture, all sake categories mixed, due to their purity, quality and fineness. Jihei Isawa decided then to stop competing and to turn his attention to the renaissance of Gozenshu type nihon shu, produced with respect for four hundred year-old traditions!
Jihei Isawa started off a new trend: the "Modern Shudo" or the modern sake way.
The demands of this trend are simple : purity with no added flavours .
Let's forget the word sake and turn our attention to Nihon Shu.
From the 15th century, in the Miyagi province and more particularly in the Sendaï region, the production of Nihon Shu had to respect special rules:
Use of 'riz japonica' grown in the region of Sendaï (quality rice has to be grown in very pure water, which explains why the Sendaï region controlled rice production in the Edo era)
Choice of spring water drawn directly from the source
Rice hulled immediately after harvesting with an 8 to 12 % polishing rate
Steam cooked in wooden containers
Spread over the mushiro ( rice straw mats) and sprinkled with kôji starch (at this time it wasn't possible to control temperature and the Nihon Shu production season was in winter). Rice fermentation started then.
Production of shubo (mother of nihon shu )
Fermented rice mixed with pure spring water and steamed rice. This primes the Nihon Shu (primes the start of fermentation)
The mix, called moromi, is in large wooden barrels. Water, rice and malted rice is added (rice + starch). This is done in stages and layers in the barrel. Each layer is left for 2 complete days to prime an homogenous fermentation. The operation is repeated 3 times.
Once fermented, the fermented mixture is filtered: this process is called "shobiri". Natural filtering is through a linen bag.
Once prepared, the liquid obtained is nihon shu, even in the 15th century, was steam pasteurised in a bain-marie (well before Pasteur ! ) and stored in barrels.
The Isawa family produced its nihon shu and Gozenshu, from generation to generation at the same time adding an art of service and tasting. From 1900 to 1940, their reputation was such that they systematically received and lodged the Emperor on his visits to Sendaï, as well as foreign Ambassadors and, amongst others, Vatican envoys to Japan.
Over the last decades, Katsuyama has searched to perfect the production of nihon shu and more precisely Gozenshu :
Use of the best rice: triple A (AAA) yamada nishiki rice. This AAA appellation guarantees the source of the rice from paddy fields in the best regions, the hours of sunshine, and a perfect irrigation with pure, high quality water. Only the best rice ears, generally in the centre of the field, are selected, then the most whole grains, with an ideal shape and consistency. These paddy fields are found in the Hyogo region (north west of Osaka) and produce the top in Nihon shu rice.
Selection of 65 % polished rice (only the heart of the grain is left, a residual 35 % ).
Continuous use of ancestral filtration methods and improvements through the development of centrifugal filtration. This new method makes it possible to extract the essence of Nihon Shu itself, and to taste the purity of the nectar. The nihon Shu obtained represents only 8 % of the fermented must!
The range we offer consists of 5 nihon shu or more precisely Gozenshu with a taste guaranteed to surprise. We speak of Gozenshu fermented rice wine, the consumption of which was reserved exclusively for the Lords in the past.
These Gozenshu are extraordinary, surprising, disconcerting, rare and cannot leave you indifferent. One thing is sure, it will be very difficult for you, after tasting one of these nectars for Lords, to take pleasure in drinking any of the other sake or nihon shu present on the market.