Whenever I talk to people about Sake and mention I live in Yamaguchi, the conversation inevitably turns to Dassai. This is understandable, since clearly Dassai is immensely famous (perhaps the single most famous sake in the world?). The brewery, Asahi Shuzo, is on TV, in newspapers, and making huge waves in the brewing world with its innovations and, well, marketing.
All this is kind of complicated for me, and other locals. I’ve been drinking Dassai for right around a decade. I first had it in 2007 or so, at a local upscale izakaya, and of course I was impressed. If there’s one thing you can say about Dassai, it’s that even non-sake drinkers take to it very very quickly, and I was just such a non-sake drinker at the time. What was more impressive to me was the fact that Asahi Shuzo, the brewery, is VERY local. Right around 12 miles from where I sit, in fact. So this fantastic product was made right in my backyard? Rock on!
Of course, in 2007 Dassai was already on the rise. It broke into the Tokyo market in the 1990s, and was long served in first class on domestic flights. But at one level it was still very local. The website was a relic of old fashioned Japanese web design with no English at all (See it here on the Wayback Machine), and featured the slogan “The little brewery in the mountains.” You could find even Dassai 23 stocked at local convenience stores. It was a Yamaguchi brand. Of course, even back then, when I told the old farts at my barber that I liked Dassai, I was yelled at. “Dassai’s made by computers for foreigners!” is more or less what they said. The backlash was starting, but people were still proud that a small local business was on everyone’s lips.
Then something changed. In my mind, it was President Obama.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is (technically) from Yamaguchi, and he seems to like to use that connection in his high level summits. When President Obama visited in 2014, Abe made a point of giving him a bottle of Dassai 23. Later, when the Obama white house hosted a state dinner with the Abes, they served case after case of the same. And it was right around there that something…changed. (On another note, at a recent state summit with Vladimir Putin, held locally, he served Hagi’s Toyo Bijin and, well, that’s a story for another time).
And suddenly, Dassai was gone. You could no longer get it here so easily. Liquor shops that had been stocking it for years suddenly had waiting lists. The prices went up (and up and up). And people started grumbling. In addition to the whole “Local business makes good” story was also the story of a man who was abandoning tradition and local support for money. Now, of course, we all do what we have to do to survive, and the owner Sakurai did not only save his family business, but helped it thrive. In so doing, however, he abandoned the centuries-old tradition of leaving brewing to a Toji master brewery, started automating processes that had once been the work of dedicated craftsmen, and continued ignoring the local community that had supplied his workers and customers.
Nowadays, when non-regulars go to a local sake shop and ask for Dassai, they’re as likely to be scolded as served. “Yamaguchi has more than just Dassai!” is a common lament, and it is of course true. The problem is, of course, no one else has Dassai’s marketing acumen and resulting name recognition…yet.
All of this I see as background for brands like Abu no Tsuru and Ohmine. These are kura that are old, established, and have local roots…but are now almost totally unconnected to those roots after long closures. They’re run by young new faces with experience in design and advertising, with labels and marketing campaigns tailor made for the Instagram generation. They’re selling an image, and they’re doing it because it apparently worked for Dassai. I have discussed some of this before, but I think it’s clear that with Dassai proving that big success means looking outward, the new Yamaguchi sake industry is bound only to follow. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on whether or not you really believe a rising tide lifts all boats applies here. I’m not sure it does…