What’s “Wineglass Sake”?

Paul Blow
Dassai 50 wineglass sake

In recent years, sake consumption has been declining in Japan. And rough times have been compounded by the recent earthquake and tsunami. (The Japanese practice self-restraint, or jishuku, when others are suffering.) But I recently found out that there's new hope for sake, in the form of "wineglass sake."

Eric Swanson, sake guru and specialist for Tenzing Wine & Spirits in Chicago, explained the term to me: It refers to refined, high-end sake that should be drunk out of a wineglass rather than the traditional ceramic sake cup. These sakes have a new appeal to younger, urban Japanese drinkers. And it's this crucial demographic—turning more and more to shochu, spirits, and beer, while sake's primary constituency is older—that's going to have to embrace sake, if it's to survive.

One wineglass sake is Dassai. While most brands produce many different grades and styles of sake, Dassai made a bold, risky decision to concentrate primarily on junmai daiginjo sake. Daiginjo is the most luxurious category of sake, requiring that at least 50 percent of each grain of rice be polished away. While daiginjo is a pricy but fairly common option in America, it's not drunk as plentifully in Japan, where coarser styles still make up the bulk of the market.

Dassai also cut prices to make its sakes almost half as expensive as rival daiginjos, to put the products in reach of younger drinkers. The slash in prices meant years of rough going for the company, but it has paid off. While much of the industry is in decline, Dassai's sales are up 150 percent over last year. "They're having trouble keeping up with demand," Swanson adds. "And every time I go to the distillery, it seems they're expanding."

Dassai 50, the company's flagship brand, is pillowy soft and almost creamy in the mouth. Its lightness and transparency belie the restrained intensity of its flavor. The finish is long, and seems to brighten and sweeten as it persists. The nose is floral and fruity.

Other cutting-edge, high-end sakes are trending too. Yuki No Bosha ("Cabin in the Snow") is Japan's first organic sake, and is handmade with two yeasts (one promoting flavor, the other aroma), whereas most sakes use only one. Bottle-conditioned before release—another unique aspect—Yuki No Bosha is absolutely delicious, with a graceful structure and a wonderful intensity of flavor and aroma.

If this is the future of sake, I'm all for it.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.