Not content with making sake for the purpose of drinking to get drunk, Hiroshi Sakurai, third generation of the 240-year-old Asahi Shuzō Brewery, embarked on a mission to deliver the best quality sake possible. In 1990, the Dassai brand was born, opening a new era for the traditional beverage of Japan.
The origins of sake date back almost 2,000 years but it wasn’t until the invention of the rice polishing machine in 1930, and the advent of the Junmai Daiginjo style, that the achievable flavour profile really changed. The ambition instilled by Sakurai has not been lost on his son and current CEO, fourth-generation Kazuhiro Sakurai. “As a sake producer, we want to be at the forefront of the industry and challenge ourselves to deliver the best tasting sake,” he says.
Located in the Yamaguchi prefecture of south-west Japan, the rural area of Osogoe was traditionally known for poor sake, which was rarely consumed outside the local area. Dassai’s decision to make only Junmai Daiginjo, using only the king of sake rice, yamadanishiki. Taking things one step further, the brewery abandoned the traditional ‘Toji’ system instead hiring a team of full-time staff year-round, with the aim of making the collective more accountable for the results. To this day, they are the largest employer in the sake industry.
The attention to detail is immense: 168 hours of polishing, strict water content control down to 0.1% accuracy, 45-day ferments, koji propagated only by hand by four people in 24-hour shifts.
The team weren’t adverse to employing the latest technology either, being the first sake brewery to use artificial intelligence. Typically, commercial-size producers would make sake in large tanks with machine processing to create a high-volume product of lesser quality. Meanwhile, boutique producers typically handcraft around 10-20 small batches of premium sake a year.
Dassai uses 300 small tanks, all year round, to produce around 3,000 hand-crafted batches. With such care and attention for each batch, the aim is not to blend, unless absolutely necessary. The sakes are never aged because they are at their best when they are fresh, and they are meant to drunk as soon as possible.
The brewery is most famous for its Dassai ‘49’, ‘35’ and ‘23’ ranges, which refer to the polishing ratio for each of their Junmai Daiginjo. When considering polishing ratios for sake, you need to think backwards – 49 means 51% of the rice grain has been polished away, 35 means 65% and 23 means an astounding 77% of the grain has been refined, thus making it the highest polishing ratio of any sake on the market. This pure starch core or ‘shinpaku’, accounts for the fresh flavours associated with Junmai Daiginjo, compared to the traditional, rice-forward Junmai category.
The brewery team at Dassai challenge themselves even further with ‘Beyond’, which aims to surpass the 23 not only in rice polishing (the exact percentage is undisclosed) but also in the pursuit of perfection. Around 25-35 tanks are produced each year, of which only around 12 tanks actually make the grade. These are shipped out in small batches each month as they are finished.
A special one-off project challenged rice farmers to pull out all stops to produce the highest quality rice possible. This resulted in a bottle of ‘Beyond Beyond’ selling at auction in Hong Kong for A$10,600.
With this type of commitment, it’s no surprise that Dassai decided to bypass the rice cooperative (supplier to many breweries) and instead contract directly with the best rice farmers across the country, sometimes whole villages or communities. “We want to get face-to-face with the actual growers,” says CEO Sakurai. With extremely strict rice grading, a lot of the crop is rejected, ending up in Dassai’s sub-brand Togai.
When asked his thoughts on sake terrior and the essence of Dassai, Sakurai responds: “It’s much more about the community, people truly invested in pursuing the same goal which is to make great sake for the enjoyment of everybody. The fact that we share the same values, eat the same food, undergo the same climate and share the same tough times in rough countryside – we hope that all of this will somehow show in the flavour profile of the sake. This is the closest thing you can get to the terroir of sake. This is the soul of Dassai.”
This ‘soul’ has not gone unnoticed and captured the heart of the late great Joël Robuchon who “fell in love at first sight”, eventually leading to La Boutique Dassai in Paris. The sake also features in the cult anime Evangelion due to the fact the producer is from Yamaguchi and just loves the brand. The global appeal and reach of Dassai in the world of sake is second to none and this expansion is set to continue with the opening of the Dassai Blue brewery in Hyde Park, New York, next year.
If there is one thing that Sakurai would like to teach the world, it is to enjoy sake quickly, but drink it slowly.
“Wine has been a truly globalised product for centuries,” he says. “For Japanese sake to be recognised, it’s not about the terroir or the characteristics of the soil, it’s about having people understand how to handle the beverage. When we travel, the local sommeliers and chefs will try all sorts of pairings with local foods and challenge themselves to use Dassai in creative ways. The more we travel and strive to explain to people how to handle sake, we believe that future great times are awaiting us.
“We truly hope that Japanese sake will be properly understood and used in the correct manner all around the world. And we hope, humbly, that Dassai will prove to be a help to achieve these great times a little bit faster.”
Dassai 45 Nigori Sparkling, A$26, 360ml
Slightly cloudy (nigori) with a fine, persistent bead. Aromas of banana, bran, cocoa butter and cinnamon. Refreshing on the palate with a clean, dry, short finish. A great aperitif.
Dassai 45, A$43, 720ml
Cooked rice, cherry blossom and melon dominate the glass. A full but gentle mouthfeel with a sweet, balanced finish. A more robust style of Dassai and versatile. Try with Chinese stir fry or char kway teow.
Dassai 39, A$64, 720ml
Freshly cut pineapple, yellow kiwifruit, papaya, and a strong rice note with a hint of vanilla. A rounded palate, full of umami and tropical fruit leading to a warming sweet finish. A good match for lobster.
Dassai 23, A$128, 720ml
Fragrant, like smelling the perfect slice of fresh green melon. Juicy with a snug maltose sweetness and layers of honeysuckle and white flowers. A soft palate of green apple and nashi builds to a long finish with a delicately pleasing bittersweet note. Very smooth and sophisticated. Pair with white fish sashimi.
Dassai Beyond, A$764, 720ml
Initially a similar nose to the 23 but more austere. Nashi pear dominates with notes of pine needle, light menthol, and glacial ice. Unravels beautifully to reveal sweet red cherry, rambutan, fig leaf, mace and rice pudding. Seductive on the palate with intense green melon. A very long, juicy finish with refreshing acid. So much depth. Expensive, but an experience that’s still cheaper than a trip to Tokyo! Pair with scampi sashimi and caviar or high-end gastronomy.
Dassai Shochu, A$120, 720ml
Made from sake lees (kasu), this is reminiscent of the Dassai 23 on the nose, but with a lifted intensity due to the distillation. Very soft and delicate on the palate with a long smooth finish. A refined shochu. Enjoy on ice in a wine glass, or with soda.
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