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Origin Sake 2016

Kojima, Kurashiki, Okayama-Shi, Japan

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Dassai Experimental

BRAND: Dassai / 銘柄: 獺祭

Rice: Calrose / 原料米: カルローズ

Style: Unspecified

Polishing Rate: 23% / 精米歩合23%

Alcohol 14.5% / アルコール23%

I’m genuinely not trying to sensationalize my opening sentence by saying that I really believe tonight’s Sake could well be one of the most significant releases of the decade, for not just Dassai, but for the global Sake Industry as a whole! Maybe...

For those who can’t read Japanese Kanji, the bold character in red means “experiment, test, try, attempt”. It can also means “ordeal”, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, let’s first have a little recap of what has been going on over at the now powerhouse producer Asahi Shuzo from Yamaguchi Prefecture.

After exploding onto the Sake scene over 8 years ago with their super premium Dassai lineup, Asahi Shuzo redefined the meaning of premium Sake by introducing their hyper-polished 23 made entirely from the finest Yamada-Nishi rice. Love them or hate them, it can’t be disputed that this new product strategy was greatly responsible for helping increase Sake’s popularity outside of Japan, and has turned the heads of many new consumers to the wonders of Sake.

For a time, Dassai enjoyed the privileged position as perhaps the most in-demand Sake in Japan. It wasn’t uncommon to see Dassai in locked cabinets, separated from the other Sake, with strict 1 bottle per customer restrictions. However, as the hype started to fade various issues with overpricing, coupled with a chronic oversupply, saw Dassai’s credibility drop considerably. So much so that the current chairman, Hiroshi Sakurai, actually took out a full page advert in a national newspaper urging people not to pay over the recommended retail price for his company’s products. I’m delighted to say that after a recent trip to my local Tenmaya in Okayama, his plea seems to have worked, with the full Dassai lineup available at the correct retail price (50: 1500円、39: 2500円、23: 5400円).

But getting his product’s domestic pricing back under control again is just the beginning of the next chapter in Dassai’s history, with the company recently announcing plans to open a new brewery in New York in early 2019. What was just another struggling Sake brewery not so long ago, will invest a reported $28 million to build the facility and hopes to introduce “a new sake culture” to the local area of New York. So significant is this, that renowned Sake expert John Gauntner described the possible impact as being a “game changer”.

And that’s where tonight’s Sake comes into things. Yes, the experiment that they refer to is a trial-run of a possible rice variety that they could use at their new facility. This presumably means that they will not be going down the route of importing rice from Japan, instead opting for domestically grown varieties. This should positively affect the retail price, which is what makes it so significant in the overall structure of the global Sake industry.

If they can get this to work, we could see the first premium grade sake being mass produced outside of Japan. The fact that Asahi Shuzo thinks there is a market, or future market, for this type of product speaks volumes for how much Sake’s popularity has increased in the last few years. But again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As I said before, the Kanji does mean experiment after all. And I have to say that although it’s not a bad Sake, it certainly isn’t a great one either.

This series is available in 4 varieties, with two different batches of 23% polished rice, a 50% and a 60%. The rice used (only 80%) is called Calrose, which unsurprisingly originated in California. It is of course a table rice intended for eating rather than brewing. As a result, despite the 23% polishing ratio, the high protein in the rice is still leaving the Sake with some bitter off flavors.

Having said that, it’s perfectly drinkable, and was released at the almost hard to believe price of 1000円 here in Japan. Moreover, although lacking in taste, it does have that signature Dassai cleanness to it, and perhaps will yield a bit more flavour with slightly less polishing. If what they are aiming for is a cheap and accessible Sake for producing in larger quantities, then I don’t think it will offend anyone too much.

What's going to be really interesting to see, is whether or not they can find a domestic rice in America that can produce better quality than this, whilst still keeping the cost down. If they can, and the market is genuinely there for a product like this, what we could be seeing with this latest release, is a glimpse into the evolution of the Sake industry. Let’s wait and see if the coming months and weeks to see what their next experiment will be...