The Reinvention Of Sake: How Dassai Defied Tradition, Dispensed The Toji And Went From Zero To Hero
Sake has been made in Japan for over 2,000 years since rice cultivation was introduced to the country, and has since become synonymous with the country's heritage. It is probably Japan's best known alcoholic beverage and is enjoyed today by both locals and drinkers around the world.
Its brewing has undergone as many changes as you might assume would come with a 2,000-year history, but has largely been treated as an art-form. For hundreds of years, Japan's thousands of sake breweries have produced sake during the winter time, after the rice has been harvested in the autumn season and has been polished down to remove its gritty outer layer - the husk, to reveal a pure, dense white starchy core known to breweries as the shinpaku, which can be translated to "rice heart". It is this rice heart that is so treasured for its refined sweetness, which is then saccharified and then fermented and brewed to produce sake.
The Toji has traditionally been the most important facet of any sake brewery, responsible for leading the team in the full process of sake-making. (Image Source: Chilled)
Given alcohol's long history since ancient times, it is a process that is often shrouded in tradition and mysticism. With sake, farm hands looking for work in the winter would gather at breweries looking for work in the winter months, who would then begin the laborious orchestrated process of polishing down rice to its core and begin the brewing process.
Each brewery becomes a symphony of fast-paced cadence with workers undergoing to synchrony of grunt work with a singular goal - of creating sake. And if these workers are the instruments of the orchestra, the toji is their conductor.
Brewery workers were typically farm hands looking for a temporary job during winter time after the harvest, and would be guided by the Toji in the sake-making process. (Image Source: Kateigaho)
The toji is the brewery's master brewer, and is a person who has undergone extensive training, having pledged himself to a guild where he learns the mysticism of not only the rice to be selected, but the precision of which the rice can and must be polished down to, and controls the magic of the koji - the ingredient that allows the rice's starch to be turned into sugars for fermentation. Much of this knowledge is an art and a tradition that is taught through practice rather than studied, and is passed from a toji's guild to its member practitioners. Each brewery will employ a single toji who carries with him the comprehensive art of sake-brewing.
So what happens when a brewery finds itself without a toji? What was once a death sentence has become the sake world's biggest success.
That is the story of Dassai.
Dassai is perhaps the most well-known sake today. Dassai's Beyond the Beyond hit a record hammer price of HKD32,000 per bottle, with only 23 bottles created using Grand Prix-winning rice. (Image Source: Sotheby's)
Today Dassai is synonymous with Japan's sake and is often held in high regard by many and whose quality is often times unquestionable - whether that is pure hype or otherwise, what is impossible to deny is its success. Its ability to permeate beyond Japan has meant global recognition the likes of which any sake brewery can only dream of - in 2021, Dassai alone accounted for 17% of total sake exports out of Japan; a staggering number.
While those who have been ingratiated with Dassai would know, its success has been centered on its Dassai 23 expression, where it was the first brewery to achieve an unprecedented rice polishing ratio of 23% (meaning only 23% of the original rice grain is left, leaving a highly refined shinpaku for brewing). Its also furnished its premium branding but focusing purely on higher end classifications of producing only junmai daiginjo sake (the highest grade of sake) using only yamadanishiki rice (known as the King of Sake Rice) with nothing else added besides rice, water, yeast and koji.
Dassai created an unprecedented 23% polishing ratio sake - the Dassai 23, that first grabbed the public's attention for the sheer labour and difficulty in achieving such a feat. (Image Source: Dassai)
But perhaps what has been the real driver of Dassai's success has been its breaking away from tradition - albeit forcibly, and having gone against the (rice) grain to dispense with the traditionally critical position of the toji.
The Birth Of Dassai
"Dassai" comes from the name "Otter Festival" which was popularised in the Yamaguchi Prefecture where Dassai's brewery, Asahi Shuzo, is based in, as there was many otters frolicking in the nearby rivers and would often lay out the fish they caught as if to showcase them in a festival.
The name "Dassai" was even used as a pen name by a popular Japanese poet, Masaoka Shiki, as he would often scatter his reading materials around his room much like the otters would with their caught fish. Nonetheless Masaoka was said to have revolutionised Japanese literature with his haikus during the Meiji Era, and hence Asahi Shuzo would later latch on to this name as they had wanted to embody that same pioneering spirit.
Yet, Dassai was not actually Asahi Shuzo's first product. Asahi Shuzo was founded in 1948 and had been retailing rather average sakes for decades before third generation Hiroshi Sakurai had came to the family business.
Sakurai-san was nonetheless not an immediate fit - a disagreement with his father on the direction of the company saw him leave the company for a number of years, finally returning as a result of his father's sudden death.
By then the family's company was doing poorly amidst a broader decline in sake consumption in Japan.
Sakurai-san has a particular fondness for relying on his analytical abilities to guide his decisions and having spent some time looking over the family business' books, he noticed that the premium sake category had remained fairly resilient.
This led him to decide that something had to be changed if the family business was to survive - he would cull the average sakes and focus entirely on the premium sake category with only junmai daiginjo's made using Yamada-nishiki rice. He gave the family's premium sake the name "Dassai" and for awhile things begin to look brighter.
However, in the early 1990's, Sakurai-san had begun to look into the craft beer business as Japan had radically revamped laws associated with beer making that opened up the market to craft breweries. This was not to be and the company had become saddled with serious debt.
Fearing impending financial distress, the brewery's toji had left as it was said that he and the brewery workers had feared that they would not be paid for their work.
This left Asahi Shuzo with no means of producing their sakes - or not.
Left without a choice, Sakurai-san had once again turned to his analytical abilities to begin the work of determining the exact aspects of a toji's work and using data collected, he begin to mechanise the brewery's operations.
Not only was the brewery free to completely break away from tradition without having to unilaterally follow a toji's instructions, but they could also begin to produce sake all year round without having to depend on seasonal manpower availabilities of the toji.
Dassai employs several artisans who work alongside mechanised systems to create its sakes without the need of a toji. (Image Source: Dassai)
However, Sakurai-san has been quick to elaborate that while some aspects have become mechanised, the brewery is determined to produce the best sake possible regardless if it is through human labour or otherwise. Thus areas like temperature management of the mash and quality controls are still human guided.
Sakurai-san had also been cognisant that even with great products, it was difficult to sell to a small local market in its prefecture, and at the same time did not want to fight with more established competitors. This led him to focus on Tokyo instead.
Nonetheless with no leads or connections, Sakurai-san would go retailer to retailer, restaurant to restaurant, with his son to pitch to them to take a bet on his Dassai sakes.
A chance encounter with Michelin-starred French chef Joel Robuchon helped usher Dassai into the fine culinary world of the West. (Image Source: Forbes)
Not wanting to be limited by Japan for fear of the overall decline in sake consumption, Sakurai-san also quickly begin to take his personalised sales pitches to metropolitan cities such as New York, Paris and Milan.
This was met with great success as many fine dining establishments were excited to offer something unique and also tasted great and could be paired well with Western cuisines.
Dassai 23 - The Star Of The Show
As Sakurai-san had turned his focus to the premium sake category when he took over the helm of the family brewery in 1984, he begun to consider how else he could help his family's sake stand out. This led him to begin planning in 1992, the creation of a 25% polishing ratio sake that he believed would be pioneering at the time, and would take the crown of "Japan's most polished sake".
However, whilst on a business trip during the creation of this new sake, he was informed that another brewery had already begun to sell a sake that featured a sake with a 24% polishing ratio.
A last minute decision changed Dassai's fate. (Image Source: Dassai)
Sakurai-san felt that he could not concede as he had brought the brewery's team far along the 6-day effort to have their rice polished down to 25% already. He then decided that the best course of action would be to expend the additional to have the rice polished down 2% more even though it would require another 24 hours of labour to do so. In total, the team would take 168 hours to produce Japan's first 23% polishing ratio sake.
Beyond the sheer labour required, a high polishing ratio is difficult to achieve as it requires much expertise to prevent the grain from crumbling as the hardier outer bran is removed leaving a more delicate shinpaku core.
While some of it might have been vanity, the incredibly high polishing ratio did have an actual impact on the final flavour of the sake - a highly refined shinpaku with the grittiness of its bran removed has allowed Dassai's sakes to achieve a flavour quality known as toumeikan or "translucency" - delicate bright, top notes with a silky texture and clean sweetness.
Since then Dassai has systematically leaned into its innovative core - introducing the first centrifuge in the sake world that allows the brewery to extract enhanced flavours, and has pioneered the Hayata method of low heat pasteurising to preserve flavours better without heat transfer, amongst many other incredible feats in the sake category.
A Dassai near you? Dassai's new US brewery in Hyde Park, New York. (Image Source: Dassai)
Its success and desire to penetrate markets abroad has even led to the brewery spending more than US$7 million to set up a brewery in New York, that it hopes will allow for wider distribution, consumption and appreciation in the massive market of the US.
Hiroshi and his son Kazuhiro. (Image Source: Forbes)
Having brought the family business Asahi Shuzo from near bankruptcy to global phenomenon and then some, Sakurai-san decided to step down in 2016, in order to allow his son Kazuhiro to take over the next chapter of Dassai's story.
Dassai 23 - Review
Color: Even Lighter White Wine
Aroma: More tartness and lactic sourness but also more crisp, sort of like a light dry white wine aroma of white grapes, white peaches, lychees and honeydews - a bright estery aroma. There's also some crisp bit of white florals in winter - think snow.
Taste: Brighter, crisper, cleaner taste with more on green melon and yogurt, and alittle bit of cream cheese or cultured butter. There's a jasmine floral note as well. There's a very gentle hit of white peach flesh - but difficult to pick out apart from the estery sweetness.
Finish: Clean, crisp, leaving a light tartness of green grapes with mild acidity in the aftertaste.
This is the most elegant, aromatic and distinctive. It has these bright, delicate top notes that are very well-defined and yet gentle but still sweet. It's alot cleaner and more crisp compared to the 39 and 45, sort of a notch above the 39, whilst maintaining a good amount of creaminess of body and acidity, lesser than the 45 but more than the 39.
It has a very refined elegance to it where as I mentioned the 45 had this sense of the flavours wanting to come through but being obfuscated somewhat. Here there's no flavours on the darker part of the spectrum like in the 45, and so its very airy, but at the same time is laid atop a still sweet and creamy body, which is what fills in the body of those delicate top notes to give alot of that brightness constitutes a sense of refinement.