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06.10.2008

Asahi Shuzo Dassai Niwari Sanbu "Otterfest 23" Junmai Daiginjo, Yamaguchi Prefecture

dassai_bottle.jpgThere is no real reason to attempt a comparison between sake and wine. Each are their own universe and deserve to be evaluated on their own terms. Leaving aside for a moment the radically different methods of their making, sake and wine are different enough that comparisons tend to introduce more confusion than clarity to any particular effort to make a point.

Nonetheless, I continue to draw parallels between wine and sake if only to explain sake in terms that most wine lovers can understand. My latest angle at helping wine lovers make sense of sake comes in the form of a comparison with non-vintage Champagne.

When champagne houses make their non-vintage cuvees, their goal, which many admirably achieve, is perfect consistency from year to year. With a great deal of care, painstaking blending of base wines with reserve wines, and consistent maturation processes, the best champagne houses manage to produce wines that may not have the the signature of a specific vintage or place, but are nonetheless unmistakable in their individuality and highly predictable in their quality.

Sake breweries are in a remarkably similar position. They seek to achieve consistency in flavor from year to year, even when producing very high volumes of sake. In the service of such a dedication they employ carefully home grown strains of the koji mold, genetically consistent rice varieties and yeasts, and very specific sources of spring water, not to mention brewing techniques.

In the wine world, producers take pains to develop points of differentiation which they believe signify the quality of their product. Some might brag about the length of aging that their wines undergo, others might mention the incredibly low crop yields of their vineyards, while still others might talk about their meticulous processes. In the extremely complex process of sake brewing, there is a lot one might brag about, but perhaps one of the key points of differentiation among some of the top sakes of the world has to do with one of the most expensive and easily quantifiable aspects of making sake: the milling of rice.

Readers who are more familiar with sake will remember that the degree of milling or polishing of the rice kernels used to make sake is the primary way of distinguishing between different quality grades of sake. The higher the degree of polishing, the higher the quality of sake, and broadly speaking, the more expensive it is. To qualify for ginjo status, a sake must have been made from rice polished down to at least 60% of its original mass. To qualify for daiginjo status, the highest standard quality designation, the rice used must have been polished down to at least 50% of its original mass.

Beyond these basic quality level requirements, the actual degree of polishing is left up to the brewery, and as one might expect, there are those who take the process to its logical extreme. The complexities and expense of polishing rice grains (already small to begin with) to consistently smaller sizes than required has become the luxury (or the fanatacism of some breweries).

As a measure of its quality, the refinement of its production, and its pedigree, I ask you to marvel at the fact that this sake is made from rice polished to the point that each grain is a mere 23% of its original size. In purely practical terms, this means that millions of rice kernels have been "sanded" consistently across their entire surfaces until all that is left is the tiniest center of the rice kernel -- a bit of pure starch smaller than the head of a pin.

To a certain extent, this is nearly insane. I know of only one other sake in the world whose rice is milled to a greater extent (to a mere 14% of its original mass). On the other hand, I can say that the producers of all the best things I have put in my mouth have each posessed their own special breed of insanity.

The brand name Dassai means "Otter Festival," a moniker chosen for its clever double meaning. Made in Yamaguchi prefecture, known for its rivers where otters used to frolick, the sake's name references an occasional theme in ancient poems that would refer to these congregations of creatures as "otter festivals." Additionally, however, a famous 19th century poet named Masaoka Shiki adopted the name Dassai because of his propensity to scatter his reading material all over the floor, just as otters are famous for scattering fish parts everywhere as they feed. Masaoka is respected for both his playful nature, but also his role in transforming modern Japanese literature and poetry. He is also widely acknowledged to have invented the term haiku that we now use to describe the traditional Japanese poetic form.

So this sake attempts to embody a poetic ideal, not of perfection, but of some combination of the playful and the profound. Whether it achieves such a balance is for you to judge.

Tasting Notes:
Clear and viscous in the glass, this sake smells of sweet cucumber, green melon, and rainwater. In the mouth it is beautifully silky and smooth with flavors of honeydew, jasmine, with hints of alpine strawberry and cedar on its clean, airy finish. This sake manages to offer two often contradictory elements - delicate flavors and aromas and big bodied texture and presence on the palate. It is both distinctive and arresting, and incredibly easy to drink.

Food Pairing:
I had this tonight with a fresh steamed fish with ginger, soy sauce, and scallions, and it was a lovely companion.

Overall Score: 9.5

How Much?: $78

This sake is available for purchase on the internet.

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