Updated: Jul 18, 2019
When people ask me about how I developed an interest in sake I usually recall a time during my year abroad in Okayama when I attended a local sake festival. It is true that at this event I tried sake so good that it finally dethroned wine from its perch as my drink of choice. However, the real origin of my interest goes back much further to a very exclusive private tasting I somehow got invited to at the Consulate General of Japan in Edinburgh’s private residence. At this event I tried several top quality sake that had all been picked from his private cellar. However, a certain sake from Yamaguchi prefecture stood out from the rest of them, and was certainly the most talked about during the evening. That special sake was of course Dassai 23 from Asahi Shuzo.
At the time of the event, Dassai (獺祭) was only just beginning to attract some of the hype and praise that would later be heaped upon it from what felt like every corner of the drinks industry. The usual pattern would be an articles or piece would be written by someone who would wax-lyrical about how it had the lowest percentage of rice polishing (Seimaibuai, 精米歩合) of any commercially available sake. People would talk about how “wine like” it was, and because of the high polishing percentage, how it was superior to regular sake. I must admit, when I tried it for the first time, I was blown away.
Up until that point, I had never tried a Daiginjo grade sake before, and therefore had nothing to compare it against. To compound things, we were all given a brochure about the producer to take home which described the painstaking process that was involved in making such a premium sake. I immediately became fixated with it and began gathering as much information about Asahi Shuzo as I could find. For months, I wouldn’t shut up about the amazing exclusive sake I had tried, and would tell anyone that would listen about how it was going to become really popular outside of Japan.
Fast forward to today, and I have reached the stage whereby I completely omit this chapter of my sake journey for fear of being ostracised for even mentioning the name Dassai when I am chatting with any fellow sake enthusiasts I happen to meet. In fact, on one occasion during my year abroad, I befriended an exporter that openly laughed when I said that Dassai was one of the best sake that I had tried. He went on to explain that he and his friends often talked about how overpriced, overhyped, and even bland they all thought it was in comparison to other much cheaper varieties they knew. At that point I quickly realised two things: I really hadn’t tried enough of the good stuff yet, and that Dassai was no longer the coolest kid in town.
Before I give my opinion on why I think Dassai has fallen from grace in the cool-books, I first just want to say that I absolutely respect what the company has achieved. Like it or not, Dassai is in truth still the main representative of premuim sake outside of Japan, and is more than likely responsible for attracting the attention of many a wine drinker to the delights of sake. I also love the back-story to how the brewery was saved from the brink of bankruptcy by ditching the old mentality of selling localy and producing cheap lower quality sake to one that produces only Junmai Daiginjo made from Yamada Nishiki rice. I have always seen parallels in the company’s transformation with that of the stricken Bruichladdich whisky distillery that underwent a similar resurrection in 2000, going from bankruptcy to one of the coolest most progressive whisky brands in less than a decade. As was the case with Bruichladdich's new owners, then company president Sakurai Hiroshi seemed determined to tear up the rule book on sake making and really shake up the industry. If anything, what Asahi Shuzo achieved with the Dassai line was for the first time making a sake that was considered trendy overseas. This has no doubt done wonders for the volume of exports to overseas countires.
However, on a recent trip to Tajima in northern Hyogo prefecture I stumbled upon a special display of Dassai in the local supermarket which got me to thinking. I remember when I first researched the brand after that tasting back in Scotland and being secretly impressed by the slight arrogance of the message proudly displayed on the company’s home page, which reads “We brew sake for sipping, not for drinking, nor for selling”. At that time I could not find anyone UK based that was selling it, and it really had the lure of being something truly exclusive. Now I was staring at it in a supermarket next to multipacks of beer. In the UK, it is now readily available from places like the Japan Centre and of course AMAZON. I even read somewhere that they are going to introduce it for sale on the Shinkansen shopping carts soon!
I have no problem with premium products being readily available, and I am anything but a snob that only drinks what’s not easily accessible. However, my problem comes from the fact that Asahi Shuzo seems to be playing both sides of the game by portraying Dassai as this premium ultra niche brand, while at the same time flogging it everywhere it can. I will admit that part of my early allure to the brand was how difficult it was to buy. Back then it was being widely used in what was latter dubbed “Sake Diplomacy” by being handed out to world leaders and the like as gifts from Japan’s government. If you were lucky enough to find it available in the shops, it was more than likely only limited to one bottle per customer (限定一本). This exclusivity was one of the main reasons for its absolutely extortionate price tag. That and the fact that it had the highest rice polishing percentage of any sake, which as we know takes time and money to achieve. However, what I was staring at was Dassai 39, one of three in the standard line up, the other being Dassai 50. And yet, the price was still over 5000 yen (around £35). The original focus of all the hype, the 23, costs around twice as much as that still.
Now that I have been fortunate to try lots of exquisite sake in many different varieties, I have come to realise why my friend in Okayama reacted the way he did.. Sake costing just a third of that price can easily be found throughout Japan that more than matches or exceeds those being made by Asahi Shuzo. As I said before, Dassai is a fantastic product. However, in my opinion the price they are charging has demoted it to something that I now wonder why anyone would ever bother to pay the extortionate prices tag. For example, at the time of writing this article a bottle of 23 is listed on AMAZON for £68. Next to this is an ignorant comment about how ALL good sake should be served chilled. I realise that the rice milling is costly, and that sake is always more expensive overseas, but nobody will ever convince me that it should command the same price as a good single malt whisky, or be more expensive that a decent champagne.
No, what we have now is a company that is solely relying on its brands image to charge exuberant prices for its products. Nothing new nowadays, but it’s not something that gets my money when it comes to enjoying alcohol. In my opinion, Dassai has gone from a cool sophisticated ji-zake like product fit for the new age, to something resembling an overpriced, overproduced big brand product. Despite still insisting on its website that the company has no ambitions to mass-produce Dassai ,it seems evident it is eying further volume increases in the future and recently began operations at its large, rather unsightly looking new brewery. Judging by the scale of the new building in comparison to when Sakurai completely changed the company's direction, it seems that the business is going from strength to strength.
However, I can’t help but think that the more it moves away from what made the brand so special in the first place, the more it loses its cool image. Perhaps even becoming un-cool (dasai). When smaller, more traditional companies also start finding success overseas, which they will, what will happen to sales of this ultra premium priced, yet readily available brand? My guess is that eventually consumers will simply see beyond the big brand image and progress to more accessible, reasonably priced varieties. I hope at that time Dassai will have a re-think about how they better control the retail price of their products. Maybe then I will again be able to go full circle and revisit the drink that put me on my path to discovering this wonderful beverage.