For many sake enthusiasts outside of Japan, myself included, drinking Dassai was a revelatory “Wow!” moment. Until very recently in the U.S., the common image of sake was unfairly limited to a cheap beverage served hot to mask its mediocrity, or something college kids tossed into mugs of beer and guzzled down to get drunk more quickly. Through progressive marketing and technological innovation in brewing, Asahi Shuzo Company’s Dassai label transformed these misconceptions, and contributed to showing the foreign market just how special sake is. Unimaginably smooth and graceful, complex yet so inviting and approachable, sake may also be served cold as refreshing spring water. Sake is meant to be savored and treasured, like drinking a liquid jewel.
There is very little that hasn’t already been said about Dassai. Its worldwide popularity is titanic. Produced by Asahi Shuzo Company in the Yamaguchi prefecture of western Japan, the Dassai label transformed a crumbling brewery nearing bankruptcy into an international industry giant. Their rise from near ruin to being successful pioneers and trendsetters in the industry is a fascinating story. (Read Why is the brand “Dassai” so Famous? to learn more about Asahi Shuzo Company) Here, we’ll be taking a look at three of Dassai’s most popular selections and exploring some fun food pairings to enjoy in the summer sun, and the uniqueness of each brew. The numbers following the brand name are each sake’s seimaibuai, or rice polishing ratio. They represent the remaining percentage of each grain of rice after it has been polished, and are indicative of aroma, flavor, and refinement. Any of these will be perfect for that next beach excursion or backyard barbeque.
This ultra-deluxe daiginjo sake has had over three-quarters of the exterior grain polished away to yield a truly remarkable sake. There are very few breweries that have ever attempted to create a sake using rice that has been so highly polished, or even possess the technology to make it possible. In fact, Asahi Shuzo Company makes an even more premium Dassai that has been polished even further than this!
The Dassai “23” has fruity and confectionary aromas with a touch of minerality. There are scents of green pear, pineapple, vanilla and angel food cake, with just a touch of petrichor. The wet stone minerality extends into the taste as well, allowing flavors of muscat grape and marshmallow to expand across the palate. The Dassai “23” is extremely smooth and light. Being that it is such a unique and extraordinary expression of sake, in my opinion, it is best enjoyed on its own as an aperitif. Allow the sensations that come from this brew to stand alone.
The 39 is a really lovely compromise between Dassai 23 and 45, possessing some of the best characteristics of both. The aromas are more subtle than the 23, but the acidity is higher, and the body is much more juicy and mouthwatering. There is a creamy, lactic texture in the mouthfeel as well. Savory, green, and vegetal notes of fennel and cucumber make up the aroma, followed by tastes of ripe Golden Delicious apple. The profile is pleasantly dry for such a highly polished daiginjo. I imagine a cold summer salad of watermelon, feta cheese, heirloom tomato and basil would be fantastic with Dassai 39.
For a long time, Dassai 50 was the most popular and widely accessible sake of the Dassai line. Asahi Shuzo Company decided to push the polishing on the rice a bit further to set themselves apart from other junmai daiginjos and brought the ratio down to 45. Thankfully, this extra polish has not rendered the sake too “precious”. This is a very versatile daiginjo that could go with a wide variety of hot and cold dishes. Compared to the previous two Dassai, the alcohol is much more present on the nose here: drier, fuller in body, with higher acidity that make this sake more bold and assertive than its siblings. There are aromas of cantaloupe, almond and white flowers, and sweet flavors of ripe peach, grape, and blueberry. Barbecued chicken is such a hit during the summer so Dassai 45 would go really well with chicken legs glazed in a honey-chili sauce and a cucumber salad on the side. This sake has plenty of body to accompany its bold flavors, fruity notes to balance the heat from the chili, and enough acidity to negotiate the honey’s sweetness; and it would be great with the cucumber salad to lend a nice cooling factor to the meal.
Bryan West has been a professional in the hospitality industry for over 15 years, and a longtime lover of sake. He currently works at n/naka, Chef Niki Nakayama’s temple to modern kaiseki cuisine in Los Angeles (2 Michelin stars, 2019). He is a certified Sake Advisor and Sake Sommelier through SSI (Sake Service Institute), and holds a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from UCLA. Bryan is thrilled over the current international sake boom, and is committed to being an ambassador for this wonderful drink that is so rich in culture and story.