Sake can be an intimidating and confusing category to get into. Despite being fond of Japan, many of us have yet to jump into sake. Heck, it’s being confusing can be argued by the fact that we are even wrong when we call sake… Sake. As the Japanese call, it nihonshu.
These make us ask questions like where does one start? How does one drink it? Is this establishment selling any good brands? These questions aren’t helped by the fact that the majority of the labels only come in Japanese. Let’s not forget that there are stores and restaurants who can’t even be bothered to know what they’re selling some times and most of what they sell come in English labels. So that leaves us scratching our heads more, as not everyone can read Japanese. Even when sake labels in the future come in English, or if someone is able to translate/read the labels, not everyone is knowledgeable with sake terms. So, we all have a long way to go!
Therefore here goes this poorly educated sake enthusiast, trying to help Malt be more open with sake.
The most recognizable sake brand right now is, I think, Dassai. I’ve been seeing it in Duty-Free locations around Asia for the past few years. It’s readily available in a lot of Japanese restaurants or bars in Asia, Las Vegas and LA. I’m pretty sure it has reached New York as well.
Dassai is a brand of sake brewed and owned by Asahi Shuzo. The brewery is based in the Yamaguchi Prefecture. Dassai is unique among sake brands as they only produce Junmai Daiginjos. Again, Junmai means sake made only with rice. Daiginjo meaning at least 50% of the rice must be polished. Polishing exposes the grain’s starchy heart more which leads to purer flavor.
This makes all of Dassai sake high-quality sake. Junmai daiginjo sake is considered the highest grades of sake. Think of Junmais as the equivalent of single malt and Daiginjo the equivalent of 46% or over, NCF and natural color. It’s expensive to make daiginjo sake as the brewery has to polish away at least 50% of the rice. That’s like “throwing away” 50% of your materials for production. Another thing that gives Dasai great esteem is its use of Yamada Nishiki rice.
Yamada Nishiki is considered the king of sakamai (sake rice) and is currently the most used type of sake rice. One of the reasons is probably it’s being larger than other sakamai. It was created in 1936 as a result of crossbreeding two other rice strains. Think of it as sake’s equivalent to Cabernet Sauvignon in the sake world in terms of usage. 33 out of 47 Japan’s prefectures produce this sakamai but the majority comes from the Hyogo prefecture.
Just to avoid confusion, I should point out that some sake breweries produce multiple brands. The brewery may own all the brands but use the different brands to target different markets. Some breweries, like Asahi Shuzo, produce sake contractually. For example, Asahi Shuzo makes one of the sakes being sold by Regis Camus’ “Heaven Sake”.
I first tried Dassai when a Japanese friend shared a bottle he brought back from Japan. This was back in 2016 and I remember him calling the brand a sellout. It was something about them starting to continue to cater to more and more markets. I guess he saw it as a brand forgetting about their loyal fanbase? Or maybe it is unusual for some Japanese to see a sake brand so globalized? I mean, the majority of sake brands don’t even get exported out of Japan. Between 1975 to 2010, Japan’s sake consumption dropped from 1.675million KL to just about 589,000 in 2010.
Dassai’s rise to fame is not out of luck. They had to fight through the constantly lowering of sake consumption back then. Their hard work paid off as Asahi Shuzo’s annual sales back in 1984 were ¥97 million. As of 2013, annual sales were ¥3.7 billion.
You can easily get them now in Duty-Free stores. I got this Dassai 39 for a bit over ¥2400. It’s bottled at 16% abv. The 39 stands for the percentage of the rice left after polishing. There are also the cheaper Dassai 50 and the more luxurious Dassai 23.
Dassai 39 – review
On the nose: Hints of green apples, green grapes, Japanese pickled cucumber, fresh cucumbers, honeydew, fresh steamed rice and an even lighter yogurt water scent.
In the mouth: An abundant but mild greeting of Muscat grapes that gives way to hints of kyoho grapes, plums, Japanese pickled daikon radish, semi-sweet Japanese bean paste, edamame, melons, honeydew and fresh cucumber.
For a “sell out” sake, it is pretty good and great for the price. I can agree with my friend’s sentiments that the more a company produces, the lesser the quality will be. Which might appear when you compare Dassai with a smaller producer’s Junmai Daiginjo made with the same rice and yeast. But for now, I wouldn’t mind ordering this at a restaurant if Dassai is the only sake they have.
I find this to be more expressive and easier to drink when slightly chilled. When it’s fresh out of the fridge, it’s sweeter but the edamame and cucumber notes are stronger as well. But regardless, it’s very easy to drink and totally not unpleasant. (My mom will drink a whole bottle of this in one seating.) It’s not too sweet and has enough aroma and body to be interesting.