Tsukinokatsura Junmai Ginjo "Yanagi"
Tsukinokatsura Junmai Ginjo "Yanagi"

Tsukinokatsura Junmai Ginjo "Yanagi"

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Aromas of early-season strawberry, vanilla, pomelo, fennel, and orange blossom fill the glass, but the palate is more subtle and controlled: Spring fruits, aromatic citrus and blossoms, yes, but also the lightness of fresh mochi, sabayon, and japanese cheesecake. Contrasting bitter notes suggest chervil, thyme blossoms, lemongrass, or bergamot–  while the finish is utterly clean and water-like, showing the full potential of Fushimi’s famous Gokosui water.

In a poetic way, Yanagi mirrors the flavor balance of Kyoto’s finest cuisines: the elusive balance of delicate flavors, sweet-sour-umami-bitter, that you’ll find in omakase dining and kaiseki ryori. I realized this when I was enjoying Yanagi with very well made sushi one time, and saw that the flavor balance of Yanagi resembled that of the seasoned rice. 

The texture is impeccably soft and fuzzy, featherweight, like the finest quality down. Unlike most delicate sakes, this one retains excellent quality even after several weeks open. The fruitiness mellows out, but the bitterness does too. Yanagi rebalances around a softer version of itself.

When I find myself falling out of love with Ginjo and Daiginjo styles, fatigued by the perfumed aromatics, textbook purity, and food-unfriendly fruit bombs, Tsuki no Katsura’s “Yanagi” Junmai Ginjo is a reminder of what ginjo can achieve: complexity, balance, elegance, and finesse. It can sweep you off your feet, and make you fall in love.



Brewery: Masuda Tokubee Shoten
Location: Fushimi, Kyoto
Rice: Yamadanishiki
Rice Polish: 50%
Style: Junmai Ginjo
Yeast: Proprietary
SMV: +3
Water: Fushimi water, drawn from an underground lake with characteristics optimal for sake brewing, is one of the 100 Famous Waters of Japan. It carries the name Gokosui: fragrant water of Fushimi.

Tsukinokatsura "Yanagi" owes its name to a poem written by Anekoji Arinaga, which describes the beauty of the imperial villa in the Katsura area of Fushimi, calling it the Moon of Katsura. In that same poem, the poet describes the yanagi (willow) trees that thrive along the banks of Fushimi’s main river.

In the middle of the Muromachi period (around 1400) among more than 300 sake breweries in and around Kyoto, “Yanagizake” in Kyoto City brewed the sake brand “Yanagi”-- possibly the first brand-named sake in Japan. Masuda Tokubee Shoten (makers of Tsuki no Katsura) inherited the Yanagi brand when the original brewery closed, and maintain its historic continuity in the market through this release. In addition, there is a custom that originated in Muromachi era Kyoto to bring “Yanagidaru,” (やなぎだる) a type of wooden cask made of willow, to celebrations. As such, “Yanagidaru”-- and Yanagi with it– implies festivities, celebration and wishes of happiness and prosperity in the home.

I was first drawn to Tsuki no Katsura when I read about it in the book, Japanese Wine and Sake. This is a historic brand that is simultaneously known for the role they played in sake history– having Japanese law rewritten to legalize and define nigori sake– as well as their dutiful, but under-the-radar, pursuit of making the best Fushimi sake possible. So when I decided to visit the brewery in January 2020, I found myself walking over 4 miles through the city of Fushimi to get there. On an unassuming residential street, the French assistant brewer Guillaume Ozanne kindly took a moment out of his busy brewing schedule to greet me and arrange a purchase. The sake I brought home that year would come to redefine sake for me, and demonstrate the potential of extraordinary brewing water in capable hands. This sake tastes the way it does, first because of the water, and second because the legacy of Tsuki no Katsura is so great, their reputation so high, that the standard must exceed expectations year in and year out.
While the brewery labels Yanagi as a ginjo, by any normal standard it’s a daiginjo. The rice is milled to daiginjo standard (50% polish), the best quality Yamadanishiki rice is used, handmade tsuki-haze koji, and ginjo yeast. Tsuki no Katsura is nationally famous but their production is still small, coveted locally, and the historic brewery still utilizes old methods. There are many releases that can only be purchased from the brewery or local restaurants they’ve maintained century-long relationships with. Kyoto has a reputation for being very exclusive: for instance, after the brewery Tamano Hikari moved from Nara to Kyoto, they weren’t able to sell their sake locally for over 50 years– it all had to be sold outside of Kyoto. In contrast, Masuda Tokubee Shoten, the brewery that sells the Tsuki no Katsura brand, has been domiciled in Kyoto since 1675 and is deeply, thoroughly entrenched in Kyoto culture.. For almost 200 years of the brewery’s life, the imperial palace was located in neighboring Kyoto city. This imperial presence influenced the regional culture, standard of craftsmanship, types of entertainment and industry, quality of cuisine, and so on. The need to serve a royal and noble standard has long been a part of Kyoto’s heritage, still evident in a product like Yanagi.

While Yanagi can be enjoyed without food, for pairing, it typically benefits from “quieter” foods: gently seasoned fresh vegetables, sushi, sashimi and chirashi, tempura (especially Spring vegetable tempura). Seafood in general: raw platters, oysters, salmon caviar, especially when assembled as part of a multi-component dish, or poached chicken, will demonstrate Yanagi’s umami and gentle sweetness, as well as its ability to cleanse fishy flavors.

Non-Japanese pairings should follow the same sensibility, looking for delicate flavor balance: Classic french cuisine, nouvelle cuisine, fresh seafood, and light use of acidity and spice. While Yanagi is relatively dry, the fruit notes and gentle bitterness can also provide an excellent foil for lightly-sweet desserts, such as anko dorayaki, anko mochi, and bittersweet chocolate. Japanese wagashi would also be perfect as well as fresh fruits (strawberries, cherries, tangerines).

Store the unopened bottle in a cool, dark spot, ideally cellar temperature (55F) or below, and enjoy within 3-6 months. While the brewery does make fantastic, award-winning aged sake, Yanagi is not intended to age.