Monthly Archives: November 2011
If you’re interested in getting into the business end of sake, Dassai is a pretty good place to start.
Hailing from Yamaguchi prefecture, Dassai (made by Asahi Shuzo) has done a good job of bringing sake into the 21st century with some forward thinking and chance taking. One of the first things that struck me about Dassai when I first came across them was the name. It actually translates to mean “otter festival”. Sounds like a cute enough name, but it’s actually quite close to another Japanese word – dasai, which means “dorky” or “daggy”. That double S is important!
One of the things that makes Dassai unique (especially for its size) is that they brew all year round. Traditionally, sake is brewed in the cooler months. In the old days winter was when the brewery workers would be free from working their own farms to come and make sake. Once the sake brewing season was over they’d head back until next year. It was/is also widely believed that the cooler months were best for the sake fermentation process. But by freezing some of their rice after harvest (remember rice is just a grain, raw material unlike grapes) they can continue to make sake even after the winter comes to a close. Dassai has also been one of the envelope pushers when it comes to rice milling. Rice milling being polishing the outside layers of rice to reach a more pure, starchier centre which in turn produces a cleaner, pristine more aromatic sake. Daiginjo-the highest level of sake, has to be milled to at least 50%. Meaning 50% of the rice must be milled away (as in the sake I’m enjoying right now). For competitions and the like, it isn’t uncommon for sake to be milled down to as much as 35%. However, Dassai has been known to go as far as their famous 23% daiginjo. 23%! Think of how large a grain of rice would be once you’ve ground 77% away! It’s time-consuming and expensive but owner/master brewer Sakurai-san is not known for cutting corners. Another of Dassai’s firsts is their use of centrifugal machinery to separate the sake from its lees (yeasty chunks). Usually this is done with a giant accordion looking press but Asahi Shuzo is the first brewery to use a centrifuge for the separation process. Modern much?
The humble 50% daiginjo is a beautifully balanced brew. Aromas are floral with some slight earthy background notes. Not as much of a fruity daiginjo. The acidity is pleasantly medium and helps this bad boy slide down with ridiculous ease. The slogan on their website declares that Dassai sake is for sipping rather than glugging, but when it goes down this easy it’s hard to slow down!
Stats: Dassai Junmai Daiginjo, Yamaguchi Prefecture
Seimaibuai: 50% Yamadanishiki rice.
Dassai is available in Australia but you won’t find it in bottle shops. Best bet is to hunt around the better Japanese restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne and maybe a couple in Brisbane. Full list available on the brewery website
The pride of any self-respecting wine dude is the wine cellar. Even beer geeks are exploring the possibilities and potential of cellaring. Cellaring being the idea of putting aside a few bottles that will “reward with time”, ie. mature into a more complex and interesting beast. A practice most familiar to the wine world. So how does sake fare after a few years in the cellar?
Usually, not too well. Firstly, the compounds in wine that give it the ability to age are either not present at all or not present in a large enough capacity to enable effective ageing. Tannin is essential to the ageing process of red wine, coming from the grape skin, vine and the barrels used for maturation. In white wines that have the ability to age, a good acid level is required. Sake contains no tannin and has far less acidity than white wine leaving it at something of a disadvantage to start. So why do it? And does anybody drink it?
It seems the answer is “yes”. Ageing sake has been done for many years and there are quite a few breweries out there that make ko-shu 古酒 (old sake) or choki jukuseishu長期熟成酒 (long term matured sake). It is out there but it isn’t particularly common. However, a recent article on a popular Japanese news site hints at a possible renewed interest in aged sake. The article refers in particular to a bar in Osaka called Jukuseikoshu Bar Quon (try saying that after a few glasses of sake). A bar that has found its niche with a menu of around 10-20 aged sakes. Fans of the old brew refer to the soft rounded flavours and the reduced effects of hangovers(?). For now, I’ll hold off on my skepticism regarding reduced hangovers but round, smooth flavours I can understand. I should admit I haven’t had a lot of aged sake. At least not a lot of sake that was meant to be aged. Unfortunately, the sake you find on the bottleshop shelf is often koshu by default. Buying sake for consumption at home doesn’t seem to have quite taken off in Australia yet, so till then check the dates on the bottle when shopping about.
Dates? Did somebody say dates? Yes, if you check out the bottle of sake nearest you, you will find a date printed somewhere on the bottle or label that specifies the day the bottle was shipped. Most sake is stored at the brewery until they think it’s ready, so the date reflects when it left the brewery as opposed to when it was bottled.
So what can you expect from aged sake? It depends on whether it is koshu that has been designed by the brewery to be drunk as an aged product or whether it is sake that was probably intended to be drunk fresh but has been kept for a while and has become old sake. Deliberately aged koshu can often have sherry like aromas, a dessert like sweetness and woody aromas. They can be delicious and rewarding. Sake that is just plain old can be a funky, dull and show aromas and flavours more resembling cooking sake. but in my opinion, if you are looking for what makes sake great-drink it fresh. Within a year is best but given the slow turnover of sake in Australia two years sometimes has to be settled for. I guess what I’m getting at is there isn’t much point getting hung up on ageing sake. Age your wines by all means but drink your sake as quick as you can. A sake cellar sounds nice in theory but keep the turnover high. Ask a brewer and you’ll find almost all of them will recommend you drink their sake fresh. If you’re concentrating on ageing and what will cellar well, you’re missing the point.
So if you spot something labelled as koshu, by all means give it a go, but anything else I’d be drinking up as quick as you can; just how the brewer wanted you to.