“You caught me drinking vodka with kid’s juice again,” says my friend Devi Dutta-Choudhury, an architect based in Berkeley, during one of our near-daily WhatsApp chats.
A quick calculation tells me that it’s 5 p.m. in California — cocktail hour. She’s fashioned an ersatz Sea Breeze from one of the cranberry-flavored juice boxes her children used to take to school. After more than a month of sheltering in place, Dutta-Choudhury says she’s out of proper mixers, but the sanctity of early-evening cocktails must be preserved.
Like many people around the world, I’ve been staying in as much as possible, swapping drinks at the bar for at-home aperitivo. The quotidian luxury of a single tipple, sipped in tandem with a tasty snack at the end of the day, feels like a much-needed balm for the soul.
Recently, I’m partial to Japanese gin, which works well in cocktails but is flavorful enough to have on its own. Elegant Ki No Bi from The Kyoto Distillery over ice works with crisp sheets of grilled nori seaweed (my favorite is from Sanpuku Nori, in Saga Prefecture); while Nikka Coffey Gin with Fever-Tree tonic water is a match for avocado whipped with yuzu citrus juice (my favorite is from Mifukuan) and sprinkled with chopped cilantro. When I’m feeling fancy, I add fresh crab meat. If I’m feeling really fancy, I have it with a Vesper made of Sakurao Gin, Grey Goose vodka and Lillet Blanc.
Most of the time, for me and others in the industry, simplicity wins.
“I don’t do any prep on my own,” says shōchū (distilled spirit) expert Christopher Pellegrini.
He opts for a plate of charcuterie and blue cheese with Yamato Zakura and Rokudaime Yuri, two varieties of sweet potato-based shōchū from Kagoshima Prefecture.
Brian Ashcraft, author of “Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit,” turns to bourbon — namely, Buffalo Trace or Maker’s Mark — with chocolate and nuts.
“These are simple yet comforting pairings, which couldn’t be better for the time in which we live,” he says.
In New York, which has been under lockdown since March 22, cocktail hour has become a “non-negotiable must in our house,” says sake specialist Monica Samuels. Her go-to combination is spicy-sweet finocchiona, a hard salami flavored with fennel seed, paired with Kawatsuru Crane of Paradise Umakuchi Junmai.
“The (bouquet has) a pastis-like quality and juicy pineapple aroma that become more vibrant with the fennel in the sausage, but there is a smoky, savory umami as well that pairs beautifully with the richness of the salami. To make this more of a cocktail, I’ve been subbing Kawatsuru for vermouth in a 50-50 gin martini variation with a lemon twist,” she says.
For a more substantial snack, wine and spirits writer Anna Lee Iijima recommends a quick appetizer of chicken wings broiled in the toaster oven with a sticky soy, ginger and honey glaze, served with bright and fragrant Tomi No Hozan sweet potato shōchū.
Chef Michael Ryan, of Provenance in Beechworth, Australia, has been drinking Suppin Rumiko no Sake from Moriki Shuzo in Mie Prefecture with fried sourdough starter. He discovered the unusual flavor combination when he — along with legions of home bakers spawned by the coronavirus pandemic — found himself with a glut of fermented dough.
“Take your starter, add a little salt, some chopped spring onion and a few sesame seeds, and then pan-fry in a small amount of oil for a delicious crunchy-on-the-outside, silky-on-the-inside snack,” he says.
Meanwhile in Denmark, where restrictions are gradually lifting and daily televised singalongs have kept spirits up, food journalist Michael Booth says he plans to keep up his pre-dinner tradition of Pimm’s with salt-and-vinegar potato chips: “Not a classic, and kind of shameful, but since this is about (what to drink) when no one’s looking …”