For a while now Yamaguchi brewery Asahi Shuzo, makers of Dassai, have been the sake industry’s favourite underdog story. Since Hiroshi Sakurai took over the reigns of the family business in 1984 Asahi Shuzo has risen from a very modest output of 700 koku to the current 12,000 koku. All production being made up of junmai daiginjo exclusively. Put simply, in an industry where breweries are closing every year this kind of growth is unheard of.
Early on Sakurai-san realized the potential for the overseas market and pushed hard to get Dassai into fine dining restaurants in Paris, London and New York with great success. Recently used in a toast at a White House dinner with President Obama and Prime Minister Abe added some serious clout to an already strong image. Closer to home Dassai has succeeded in gaining a place on many Michelin-stared restaurant lists in Tokyo and recently further promoted their high-end image with a Dassai dedicated bar opening in the uber-chic area of Ginza in Tokyo. The portfolio has also seen the introduction of one of the pinnacles of sake decadence with the release of Dassai Beyond. A sake whose production methods are shrouded in secrecy but still commands the daunting price tag of 30,000 yen plus locally or upwards of $500 in overseas markets. So the obvious question is: what’s next for Dassai? Well, for starters construction on a new brewery means an increase in output. When I visited the brewery in Yamaguchi a short while ago the undergoing construction work was nothing short of staggering.
Indeed Sakurai-san is looking to increase production five-fold to 50,000 koku in the coming years. For a brewery that produces only junmai daiginjo that’s a huge undertaking. But are Dassai putting all their eggs in one basket? Do they risk becoming a one-trick pony? Some would argue they already are. While a few years ago Dassai were seen as the darling of sake connoisseurs, these days there are many consumers who feel Dassai has little more to offer.
When the trend for low seimaibuai (rice milling) and wild yeasts and throwbacks to old production styles such as yamahai, kimoto and bodaimoto is becoming increasingly popular, where does that leave Dassai and their sixteen(!) rice milling machines? As more breweries become more environmentally aware entering into organics and environmentally friendly practices, how does that reflect on Dassai’s rather extravagant use of new (non-recycled) bottles only? When the trend for unfiltered sake is making a strong comeback where does that leave Dassai and their state-of-the-art centrifugal filtering system? They’re questions worth asking because as the audience for sake grows wider overseas as well as domestically there will be those that will start to look for something more than just junmai daiginjo. Sure Dassai have their sparkling, an aged sake, limited unpasteurized releases and a version of their 50 designed to be drunk warmed but it’s still a somewhat limited portfolio. But then it could be further genius on the part of Sakurai-san as they become viewed as more of a Champagne house that specializes in a specific style, one that demands a little pizzazz and a touch of extravagance. But still if that’s the case the other niggling factor will be quality. On my visit to the Dassai brewery I was fortunate enough to try a glass of Dassai Beyond as well as their Tameshi (test) sake.
Again, the production involved in the creation of the Tameshi was vague but it was interesting to see that there are new things on the horizon. However, to be honest while both were fine sake in the Dassai mold neither the Beyond nor the Tameshi filled me with excitement of a future of new things from Dassai. The Beyond, while a smart and classy sake is clearly priced according to the production costs rather than a reflection of the taste. Made with the best rice money can buy and brewed under the computerized (and human) eye of bank-breaking technology, what clearly lacked was a sense of character or place. While an approach similar to Champagne houses may seem like a good idea in theory the other thing not to forget is Dassai are not the only brewery making junmai daiginjo using yamada-nishiki rice. Far from it, just about every brewery has a shot at it. And while most don’t go as far as Dassai when it comes to milling rice to extreme levels, many come just as close and then some, in terms of quality – often at a fraction of the cost. With a target of increasing production to 50,000 koku it would be understandable if Dassai were to dispose of their “junmai daiginjo only” policy and head into the cost-effective arena of regular junmai, ginjo or table sake. Already there are farmers struggling to keep up with Dassai’s rice quota. A Dassai sake with a seimaibuai of 80% for example would be a very interesting counterpoint to the rest of their portfolio but alas I fear such sake is not on the agenda. Besides the Tameshi, a couple of other notable releases have been their Togai (made with rice that hasn’t undergone the required quality inspections that qualify a sake to be labelled as special designation tokuteimeishoshu, in this case junmai daiginjo) however although the shirking of the special designation labeling is new ground for Dassai the production policies ie. using rice milled to daiginjo levels in a junmai process remain intact.
Wine and beer markets have always been subject to change in trends. Heavily oaked, malolactic rich chardonnays of the eighties have been shunned for lean styles with malo and oak used sparingly and rosé wine is no longer considered a girl’s drink. The big beer breweries have finally cottoned on to the craft beer juggernaut (which undergoes all sorts of trends within itself, see the rise and fall of heavily hopped IPAs as a case in point) and are adjusting their beers and marketing accordingly. In the sake world ginjo only became a thing some thirty years ago. Yamahai styles, low milling styles, natural brewing methods are making comebacks and breweries are adapting. At some point Dassai is going to have to as well. Junmai daiginjo will always have a place, but whether it’s a place that can sustain or warrant a five-fold increase in production is yet to be seen. But no doubt it’ll be a challenge Sakurai-san and his team will tackle with the optimism and tenacity that have brought Dassai this far.