The cocktail renaissance of recent years has inspired bartenders to scour the planet for palate-surprising ingredients to include in their concoctions. Many lately have turned their attentions to spirits from Asia.
Sake, of course, has long been established in the U.S. primarily through the popularity of Japanese restaurants and sushi bars. But the fermented rice beverage has become more important as a cocktail ingredient in recent years.
Korean soju is another spirit now emerging from strictly ethnic settings, as is Japanese shochu. Even baiju, the funky and earthy Chinese spirit, has started appearing on drink menus in the U.S.
Here’s a look at some of the unique spirits from Asia and how some operators in the U.S. are using them.
Super sake cocktails
Sake is brewed from fermented rice in a process similar to making beer. Grades of sake vary by how polished the rice is—the more polished the kernel, the finer the sake. Daiginjo, ginjo, honjozo, junmai and nigori are popular types of sake.
Bartenders have long admired the attributes of sake—lightness of body, refreshing flavors and crispness.
“Sake adds a nice creamy texture to the cocktails we use it in,” says Constantin Alexander, bar manager of Hakkasan Las Vegas. “For this reason, we have to make sure to use [sakes from] high-quality producers with the right flavor intensities in our cocktail program.”
Sake sits front and center in Hakkasan’s signature Saketini cocktail, which mixes Masumi Okuden Kanzukuri junmai sake, cucumber vodka, gin, lime and cucumber slices. “It helps bring together all of the unique aromas and tastes that make the drink,” Alexander says.
The Hakka—made with vodka, Masumi Okuden Kanzukuri junmai sake, coconut, lime, passion fruit and lychee juices—is the restaurant’s most popular drink. Another is its Plum Sour, made with Hakushu 12-year old whisky, umeshu (a sweet-and-sour plum liqueur), lemon juice, Angostura bitters and egg white. Umeshu is good for adding fruit qualities to a drink without unbalancing the flavors, Alexander says.
Umi, an Atlanta sushi destination, lists a selection of craft and seasonal sakes, including fruit-flavored varieties; prices range from $22 to $400 per bottle. “The fruit sakes we carry are all naturally flavored with fruit purée instead of artificial flavors, so at least if you choose that route you know what you’re drinking,” says Umi barman Gabe Bowen, who oversees the list.
Adventurous diners are helping to spur interest in the brewed-rice beverage. Guests have become much more open to new food and beverage experiences in the past five to ten years, Bowen says. “They understand [sake] is an appropriate pairing with our food.”
It can take some education and hand selling, however, considering many customers in the U.S. have been exposed to lower-grade sake that’s served too warm, or sake that’s sold past its prime.
Some guests might have had a bad experience with a lower-quality sake before, Bowen notes. “Once you let them try something of a good quality, it’s almost night and day. It’s simple, like our food, but can still bring a complexity that is incomparable to anything else.”
Appreciation of sake has spread through casual izakaya (Japanese-style pub) restaurants, nightclubs and even chains. P.F. Chang’s, for instance, offers a Yuzu Ginger Mojito made with two types of sake. The Asian Bistro chain carries four sake varieties on its menu.
Upscale operators with an eye to healthier eating and drinking are including sake as a gluten-free alternative. Steakhouse chain Smith & Wollensky currently carries a Low Cal Mojito made with coconut sake on its cocktail menu.
And last summer, Renaissance Hotels featured 14 cocktails made with TY KU sake. The drinks were created by Francesco LaFranconi, executive director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine and Spirits.
Korean soju is generally made from rice, barley, wheat, tapioca or a range of starches. Soju’s popularity had been limited primarily to California restaurants, Korean and otherwise, because the state’s rules allow lower-alcohol beverages to be served in operations with limited licenses.
Japanese shochu is distilled mainly from rice, barley, sweet potato or buckwheat, but also sesame, sugar cane, even green tea. Shochu has become more widely available through the efforts of bars and restaurants looking to create an authentic Japanese dining experience here. Both shochu and soju are generally unaged, though many aged versions exist.
The cocktail menu at Umi includes a sake cocktail called the Lightweight. It combines milky nigori sake, sweet potato shochu, grapefruit, lychee and a splash of Asahi beer.
“The cocktail ends up being super approachable,” says Bowen. “The sake and lychee work together to create a round creaminess, while the shochu and beer add an earthiness that balance it out.”
Bowen recently developed a cocktail for a shochu competition that he plans to add to Umi’s list this spring. Called the Koyo Front, the drink uses a rice-based shochu mixed with yuzu, jasmine syrup, shiso leaf, tonic and garnished with yellowtail and jalapeño. The cocktail, which pairs with most anything on Umi’s menu, already has a following among those who know about it through word of mouth, he says.
Yusho restaurant in the Monte Carlo Hotel in Las Vegas carries both sake and shochu. Concept creator/chef Matthias Merges points out that the Japanese and Korean varieties of shochu have subtle differences, but few consumers in the U.S. would be able to pick up on them.
“Both sake and shochu are incredibly yeast/koji-driven products, meaning much of their aromatics and flavors come from the microorganisms used in production, not unlike wine and beer,” Merges says. “As a result, you get a very diverse array of potential end flavors, so that makes them so attractive to us. “
What’s more, sake and shochu “are very terroir-driven, something we are always drawn to, and that can be something tough to find in higher-alcohol spirits for which distillation removes those characters,” he says.
EN Japanese Brasserie in New York carries a broad range of Japanese beverages—beers, extensive sakes, shochus plus shochu cocktails. Its EN Shochu Bar offers more than 20 types of shochu, depending on availability, in addition to more than 50 types of sake, mostly small-producer, biodynamic and traditional-method varieties.
Why so many shochus? In Japan, more people drink shochu than sake, says EN general manager Michelle Hand, noting that it is especially popular in southern Japan. The restaurant strives to offer an authentic Japanese experience.
The shochus EN sells are distilled just once, Hand says, so they retain more flavor than many others. It lists the shochus by primary source (barley, rice, sesame) and also includes brief tasting notes; shochus are offered by the glass, 10-oz. decanter or bottle.
Shochus are also included in EN’s multicourse dinner pairings. “It’s something that’s so popular in Japan, but also our guests may not try it on their own—this way we sort of force them to sample, usually served on the rocks,” Hand says.
EN also serves sake, Japanese whiskey and shochu in flights. Specialty cocktails include the Ginger (homemade ginger ale with rice shochu, lime juice and soda) and Seppun (shiso leaf, grapefruit juice, yuzu with barley shochu), and shochu infused in-house with coffee, ginger or even white truffle. EN also serves chu-hi, which is shochu mixed with juice or tea.
Say hi to baijiu
Baijiu is a clear spirit from China distilled primarily from sorghum, but also from rice, barley, millet and combinations of these grains. While it’s still rare to find baiju on the menu at bars and restaurants not catering to mostly Chinese customers, the spirit is starting to appear in other types of establishments.
Hakkasan carries it, for one. “Baijiu adds character—there’s nothing in the world like it,” says Alexander. “It’s such a unique flavor profile to work with.”
Hakkasan’s cocktail Weapon of Choice, made with No. 209 gin, Shui Jing Fan baijiu, Hum botanical liqueur, Vandermint and peach bitters, is complex, but doesn’t mask the essential earthiness of the baiju, Alexander says. “You really don’t have to add much to create an impact.”
With an unknown spirit, he notes, “you never know if the guests will embrace it, but so far it’s been extremely well received.” Even bottle sales have been good for baiju; the traditional manner of drinking the spirit in China is as a toasting beverage. Hakkasan’s guests are curious about baijiu, he says, “so we have trained the staff to be able to talk through its profile and encourage them to try. ”
Non-Asian themed operations are giving baiju a try as well, at least tentatively. Chris Burmeister, head bartender at The Outpost in Santa Barbara, CA, serves an Imperial Sour cocktail, made with baijiu, Yellow Chartreuse, honey syrup, lemon and pineapple juices, orange bitters and egg white.
“I first sampled some baijus last year, and they were like nothing I ever tasted before–definitely funky and cool and different,” says Burmeister. He likes the stewed fruit, prune and raisin qualities he finds in some baiju, and finds it works well with citrus, fruit liqueurs and syrups.
Burmeister expects to include a three-baiju flight shortly on the menu in The Outpost’s lounge bar, and include a taste of the Imperial Sour as an example of how the spirit can work in a mixed drink.
Jack Robertiello is wine and spirits writer/consultant based in Brooklyn, NY.
Japanese Whiskeys Heat Up
Interest in Japanese whiskeys, including Yamazaki and Hibiki, has been bolstered lately by better distribution since owner Suntory bought Beam last year. It doesn’t hurt that whiskey expert and author Jim Murray just selected Suntory’s sherry-cask finished, 2013 Yamazaki Single Malt as the “World Whisky of the Year.” The other major Japanese whiskey producer, Nikka, has also been ramping up efforts in the U.S. as well.
Japanese whiskeys have increasingly taken a place on lists at cocktail and whiskey bars. “We have seen a rise in Japanese-whiskey drinkers who are looking for the higher-end items,” says Constantin Alexander, bar manager of Hakkasan Las Vegas. “I think this can be attributed to some of the great press that these whiskies have been getting as of late, as well as the realization that these are great whiskies that can stand up to the best in the world.”—JR
Yusho Simplifies Sake Selection
The restaurant Yusho in in Las Vegas’s Monte Carlo Hotel has taken a modern approach to selling sake. Concept creator/chef Matthias Merges lists them by various evocative descriptors, such as colorful, focused and bold, rather than the traditional terms.
Yusho’s sake descriptions are similar to those used to convey a wine’s body, texture and flavors. This helps guests better understand the grades of sakes and flavors to expect.
More consumers are becoming aware that sake is “a unique and delicious genre of beverage with a wide range of styles and food pairing potential, but understanding the names of the different sake grades and styles can be daunting for anyone,” Merges says.
As he points out, the various Japanese terms for styles of sake refer to the amount each rice grain is “polished,” or milled down to remove outer layers of the husk, and whether alcohol is added during production. “We hope to give our guests the opportunity to be as comfortable as possible ordering their sake by listing our selections in terms that are more familiar than terms like daiginjo, honjozo or yamahai,”Merges says.
Presenting the selection this way not only helps guests better understand sake, it also helps his servers better sell the brewed-rice beverage. “For our service staff, listing the offerings this way often works as a springboard for them to create a greater dialog about what aspects of a beverage are appealing to the guest at the table,” Merges says. “Our team’s product knowledge is key.”