Sake used to be a drink consumed by just a few—typically aficionados of Japanese food and culture—but that’s been changing in recent years. The fermented rice drink has evolved from a ceremonial beverage most often heated and served in traditional, ceramic cups to a premium spirit that’s enjoyed more like a scotch or fine wine. Sake is also an excellent base for cocktails.
“Sake is getting bigger and people are getting more interested in it,” says Adrien Falcon, beverage director at Brushstroke. The New York restaurant, which serves Japanese kaiseki (multicourse) cuisine, has a list of 50 to 60 sakes by the bottle and another 15 by the glass. Bottles of sake range in price from $60 to $1,300 and glasses from $13 to $24.
Eiji Mori, sake director for Innovative Dining Group, changes up the sake menu at its Katana concept in Los Angeles a few times every year to introduce new beverages and new breweries.
The restaurant offers 55 sakes, ranging in price from $20 to $200. Most diners, Mori says, order bottles of middle-grade sake, which is priced in the $70 to $80 range.
Katana also has six sakes by the glass, which are priced from $8 to $18, and a sake flight with three different grades (2 oz. each) for $18.
Customers have become much more sophisticated about sake, Mori says. “When we opened the restaurant 10 years ago, people wanted beer or a sake bomb. Then it changed and customers started asking for the specific type of sake they wanted.”
When Mori sees a table with the sake flight, he always tries to stop by and provide some education. “I feel that is why guests order a sake flight—because they are interested in sake.”
A QUICK SAKE PRIMER
While many refer to sake as rice wine, it’s actually brewed from fermented rice using a process similar to making beer. Sake is available in many different grades that vary by how polished the rice is—the more polished the kernel, the finer the sake. These are the four most common grades of sake.
Daiginjo. The most highly polished rice kernels are used to prepare daiginjo sake, which tends to be light and fragrant. At least 50% of the rice kernel is polished away for this grade of sake.
Ginjo. The ginjo sakes are slightly inferior to daiginjos, and have 40% to 50% of the rice kernel polished away. These are higher in alcohol (usually 18% to 20%).
Honjozo. Just about 30% of the rice kernel is polished away for honjozo sakes, so typically some alcohol is added during fermentation. These sakes tend to be dry, medium-light and relatively smooth.
Junmai. Full-bodied junmai sakes are more acidic than the other levels and they pair easily with most foods. Junmai means pure, and these sakes are made from rice, filtered water and koji mold (the yeast used to start the fermentation).
One variety of sake that has become popular lately is nigori. It’s an unfiltered sake, so nigori is cloudy, and tends to be sweeter and more fruity than other sakes.
Nigori has a more concentrated, creamy flavor vs. other sakes and it’s easy to pair with food. “It can go with a wide variety of dishes,” Falcon says. “It’s has a little more concentration of flavor, and a creamy, milky flavor profile.”
Brushstroke always has two or three nigoris by the glass, priced from $13 to $25. They pair well with bold flavors and tofu, says sommelier Jacob Daugherty.
Nigori is also big at Katana, where it’s typically offered by the the bottle. Although just one style is offered by the glass, Mori will open bottles of nigori on request. Opened sake lasts for about a week in the refrigerator.
“Nigori is a lot sweeter so it is easier to drink for some people,” Mori says. Nigori is best on its own, he notes, “or sometimes I do it with sweeter desserts.”
Scottsdale, AZ-based RA Sushi offers three nigori sakes, according to Alex Summer, corporate beverage director for the 25-unit restaurant chain. The nigoris go well with dessert or with spicy dishes, such as spicy tuna rolls, “or anything with sriracha or wasabi.”
Nigori helps get people into sake, says Summer. “Sake can have quite the bite depending on what you’re trying for the first time, but nigori is a very appealing beverage and has less of an alcoholic flavor than other sakes.”
H2O, a seafood restaurant in Smithtown, NY, has a full sake menu featuring two junmais, one junmai nigori, and one daiginjo. The 300-ml. bottles of sake range in price from $21 to $58.
“I’ve found people prefer it by the bottle, because it’s just three or four servings,” says Paolo Villela, beverage director for Bohlsen Restaurant Group, which owns H2O. Customers mostly order the sake to pair with sushi, but it also goes well with other seafood dishes and even spicier meals, he says.
SHAKING UP SAKE COCKTAILS
Several operators are using sake in cocktails as well. H2O, for instance, offers a Saketini made with junmai sake, vanilla vodka and fresh lemon juice, served in a Martini glass garnished with cucumber.
RA Sushi has a Strawberry Saketini (nigori sake, vodka, strawberry puree, simple syrup and citrus) on its menu at all times. It also promotes monthly drink specials, such as the Frozen Red Bull Cherry Bomb, a mix of Red Bull, Three Olives cherry vodka, soju (a distilled Korean beverage), orange juice and Monin cherry syrup.
Katana serves a lychee-infused and a yuzu-infused sake for $12 apiece. It uses premium sake, and adds the fruit for a day before it pours off the liquid.
The restaurant also sometimes makes these with flavored syrups, too, which last longer (made with fresh fruit the sake lasts about a week) and have consistent flavors.
“Sake cocktails should be simple with not many ingredients,” says Mori. “I still want to taste sake.”
Phoenix-based P.F. Chang’s offers a Yuzu Ginger Mojito made with junmai sake, TY KU citrus liqueur, yuzu juice, fresh lime juice, and house-made ginger beer. And the Asian bistro chain’s Rock-n-Berry is a favorite summer cocktail that contains sake, fresh cucumbers and strawberries, and lime juice, says director of beverages Mary Melton. Both cocktails are priced at $9. But while these drinks do fairly well at P.F. Chang’s, its traditional cocktails are more popular, she says.
For certain, not everyone is a fan of sake cocktails. Casual dining chain operator Ruby Tuesday had offered a Pomegranate Sake Martini for a few years but took it off the menu about two years ago. “Sake’s plateaued, at least,” says beverage director Ken Lennox.
And at Brushstroke, “We do not typically incorporate sake into our cocktail program,” says Daugherty. “We will make Saketinis if requested, but it is not a cocktail we promote or push. Sakes are treated as nobility on our menu.”
HOT OR NOT?
Sake is most frequently consumed warm in the U.S., but this can be a mistake, says Tiffany Soto, founder of Sake2You Consulting in Las Vegas and founder/president of The North American Sake Institute. In Japan, she explains, sake is sometimes warmed, but only to around 105ºF.
Most of the sake consumed in the U.S. is cut with grain alcohol so it has a high alcohol content, Soto says. “And if you heat it too high the alcohol will go, though if you gently warm it, it doesn’t.”
To avoid errors, Soto recommends serving sake cold. Most sakes are best at around 45 to 55 degrees, she says.
Sake is supposed to be delicate, intricate and subtle, Soto says. “As it gets warmer, different aromatics can take over and you miss out on the chance to appreciate the nuances.” Serving sake too cold can have the same effect, she notes.
But many consumers love their sake heated up. Hot sake is the No. 1 seller at H2O, for instance.
Tokya nightclub and sushi lounge in New York will heat some sakes in the winter and add spices. Master mixologist Orson Salicetti says he’ll combine cinnamon, clove, star anise, fennel seeds and allspice in a small cheesecloth bag and drop it into the warm sake for about 20 seconds. These drinks are then garnished with fresh herbs, such as rosemary or sage.
“Just adding some green herbs to sake brings out some of the flavors,” he says, “but you can’t add too many because sake’s delicate and light.” ·
Amanda Baltazar is a freelance writer based in the Seattle area.
Life in Japan revolves a lot around rituals, and one of them is that you shouldn’t pour your own sake—you’re supposed to let others pour it for you. But for bars and restaurants that serve sake, it’s okay to let this one slide, says Tiffany Soto, founder of Sake2You Consulting in Las Vegas, and founder/president of The North American Sake Institute.
“Restaurants are trying to give this extra level of service by pouring sake for customers,” Soto says. But it’s better to let them do it themselves. “From a business perspective, they’re going to drink more, and they’ll have more fun with it,” she notes.
That said, there are other aspects of sake service that operators should pay more attention to. These are a few common mistakes bars and restaurants often make with sake.
Serving sake too hot or too cold. Sake should be served at 45ºF to 55ºF degrees and no warmer than 105ºF.
Not providing enough information on the sake menu. Instead of “puffy language like ‘light and dreamy,’ provide information on the quality level, where it’s from, plus a tasting note,” says Soto.
Not adequately training staff. “Try and be one step ahead of the customer,” Soto says. “If your staff is informed, then the customer is, too, and they’re more likely to spread the word about your sake program.”
Serving sake that’s too old. Sake is stamped with a shipping date, and it should be used within two years of this date, Soto says.
If it’s past its prime, sake gets flabby, earthy and rich and starts yellowing–it should be very clear, she notes. “Even if it’s a little bit yellow, it shouldn’t be served.”--AB
Like sake, shochu is an alcoholic beverage indigenous to Japan. Unlike sake, which is brewed from fermented rice, shochu is a distilled beverage–a hard liquor typically made from barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or rice. And it’s becoming quite popular in cocktails.
Brushstroke, a kaiseki (multicourse) Japanese restaurant in New York offers several cocktails containing shochu. One standard is the Ginger ($13), which contains hakutake rice shochu, house-made ginger ale and lime. Others are riffs on classic cocktails, served mostly by request.
Tokya nightclub and sushi lounge in New York also carries a few shochu cocktails. “My idea was to take some traditional American cocktails and replace the spirits in them,” says master mixologist Orson Salicetti.
The Negroni is one of the most popular, he says, and contains shochu (50%), Campari and sweet vermouth (20% each), Citron Sauvage and Ramazzotti Amaro (10%).
Another favorite is the Toyka gimlet, which contains shochu, yuzu juice, agave nectar and shiso leaf (Japanese mint), and is garnished with star anise and shiso leaf and flambéed. The shochu drinks are priced at $17 each.–AB