Despite its funny-sounding name, the Sakenic is a compelling tipple. A fizzy mix of sake, soda and tonic water with an orange twist, it is light and refreshing, with a balance of sweetness and acidity that brings to mind a gin and tonic with less of a bite. The drink is one of the most popular items at Sake Hall Hibiya Bar, an establishment in Ginza, Tokyo, that specializes in sake cocktails. At roughly 8 percent alcohol, it’s about half as strong as straight sake.
Perhaps scarred by college-era memories of “sake bombs,” I’m not alone in viewing sake cocktails with a measure of skepticism, but the fruity drinks at Sake Hall Hibiya Bar are designed to be approachable. Although some of the cocktails on the menu are too sweet for my taste, they seem to appeal to a wide range of consumers.
“The cocktails are especially popular among women,” manager Toshiro Kobayashi tells me. Minutes later, he serves a round of sake cocktails to two young men seated at the next table.
Sophisticated sake cocktails are a relatively new and rare phenomenon in Japan. A couple of notable exceptions are the Sansui cocktail, made with frozen sake and umeshu (pickled plum) at bar TwentyEight in Tokyo’s Conrad Hotel, and the Mandarin Oriental’s velvety 88, a blend of Okunomatsu 1988 aged sake, chestnut liqueur and maple syrup (their bartenders also mix a terrific Lychee Saketini).
Japanese bartenders have traditionally avoided using sake in classic cocktails. Sake is lower in alcohol than distilled liquors such as whiskey, and the brew’s subtle flavors, says Hidetsugu Ueno of bar High Five, are easily overpowered by other spirits.
“It’s a challenge to make a drink that lets the character of the sake show through,” he explains, before adding a splash of soda to his J’s Citrus Highball — a tangy mix of Fukuju yuzushu (an infused sake from Hyogo Prefecture), Skyy Vodka and fresh lemon juice.
The cocktail was one of seven new drinks Ueno created for the 7 Samurai Barchefs project. Organized by German-based sake and shōchū importer Yoshiko Ueno-Mueller, the project consists of events at prominent bars in seven cities around Europe and Asia. Ueno-Mueller asked each bartender to make seven original sake- and shōchū-based cocktails, some of which are incorporated into the bars’ permanent menus.
The feedback from both bartenders and consumers has been positive, and Ueno-Mueller believes that we can expect to see more sake cocktails around the world in the future.
“The bartenders approach it with a lot of interest,” she says. “They see an increase in the consumption of sake and shōchū, and we have been contacted by quite a few bartenders who are starting to work with it.”
As mixologist Gen Yamamoto points out, using sake and shōchū can have certain advantages when making cocktails based on fresh fruits and vegetables. At the New York restaurant Brushstroke, where he worked before returning to Tokyo this summer, Yamamoto garnered accolades for creating inventive combinations such as warmed Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo sake topped with whipped cream and homemade strawberry confiture, garnished with mint.
“It’s like food pairing,” he explains. “If I use a vegetable like corn, which has a delicate taste, it’s not good with gin because that’s too strong. But it can work with sake and shōchū.”
While it’s easier to use sake that has a bolder flavor profile, it’s a mistake to assume that you should make cocktails with low-grade varieties.
“A lot of bartenders think that it’s a waste to use good sake, but it’s possible to use even daiginjō, if you consider the sake’s character,” he says.
That’s an idea that may not sit well with sake purists, but anything is possible in the right hands.
Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.