Rice for life: The rise of rice in drinks

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

22 March 2017

The likes of saké and horchata are well-known to most bartenders. But there’s a growing trend to work with rice to add flavour and texture as well. Uncle Ben’s and a shot please, says Laura Foster

Main photos: Miles Willis. Styling by Robyn Wilkie at 7 Tales

Traditionally, we used to only count four flavours as primary tastes – salt, sweet, bitter and sour.

Umami, the latest addition, was only recognised in 2009. However, we may soon see a whole other raft of flavours join the party as scientists work to prove that they meet the necessary criteria to be named a primary flavour – a taste should be recognisable, have its own set of receptors in the tongue and trigger a useful physiological response.

Two of the most promising-sounding ‘flavours’ being investigated are ‘kokumi’, which roughly translates as hearty or rich taste, such as you’d find in a broth, and the flavour of carbonated drinks. Recently, a study conducted at Oregon State University has also pushed starch, or complex carbohydrates, to the fore as one of the key contenders to join the current five.

Previously, it was thought that we tasted the sweet element of carbohydrates – because complex carbs consist of chains of sugar molecules – and enzymes in our saliva broke these into shorter chains and simple sugars.

However, a team of scientists led by a lady called Juyun Lim has recently proved that we actually identify carbohydrate as a flavour in its own right.

In the study, volunteers were given different carbohydrate solutions with long or short carbohydrate chains, and ‘they called the taste “starchy”,’ Lim told magazine the New Scientist. ‘Asians would say it was rice-like, while Caucasians described it as bread-like or pasta-like. It’s like eating flour.’

Even when volunteers were given a compound that blocked sweet receptors, they could detect the flavour.

Despite these findings, Lim’s team has some way to go before starch is accepted as a primary taste, as they haven’t succeeded in finding specific tongue receptors for it yet.

Coincidentally, some bartenders have recently been incorporating carbs – or more specifically rice – in their cocktails.

The rise of rice
Rice-based drinks are nothing new. Just look at Japan’s long history with saké, a drink that’s brewed from rice.

‘Saké production is thought to have started soon after the arrival of rice cultivation from China [to Japan] around the third Century BC,’ says Oliver Hilton-Johnson of Tengu Saké. ‘The original and most primitive method of making saké is known as kuchikami no saké; here, people would spit chewed rice into a pot and the enzymes in their saliva would break down the starch in the rice and allow naturally occurring yeast to then ferment the resultant sugar.’

Happily, saké production has come on a long way since then, but ‘in general rice and the umami taste is the basic flavour component for premium saké,’ explains Elise Li of Japan Gourmet. ‘The brewer
can then choose the style of saké – do they want it to be more grainy and earthy, or do they want it to be more fragrant or fruity?’ she says.

Rice is a very underrated flavour, but it is quite beautiful – delicate and aromatic

Zoe Burgess

‘We have so many different types of saké,’ says Akashi Komatsu of the Akashi Saké Brewery. ‘For instance, junmai-type saké tastes richer in umami and rice flavour, and ginjo-type saké tastes more aromatic and fruity.’

Meanwhile, across the Pacific in Mexico and Guatemala, the soft drink horchata is also made with rice – adapted from a north African drink made of tiger nuts that made its way to Spain during the Moorish conquest some time before 1000AD, and was then carried to South America during the time of the Spanish conquests.

‘Horchata is one of the three most important “aguas frescas” (fresh water beverages) in Mexico, along with lime and chia seed, and agua de jamaica (hibiscus-flower water),’ explains Speciality Brands consultant Gabriela Moncada.

‘In our cuisine, it is as prevalent as wine in Europe – we are used to drinking soft drinks rather than wine in Mexico. You can acquire horchata in every market, on street taco stands, in supermarkets and even in some restaurants.’

Hopping back to Asia, in southern China, baijiu is also made from our grainy friend. Rice, it is safe to say, has produced three very different drinks that are central to cultures that incorporate a lot of rice into their diets. So why not mix with it? From using it to make syrups, to infusing uncooked rice into spirits, or green tea that contains toasted brown rice, there are myriad options.

Turnmills Rice Wine at 7 Tales
Turnmills Rice Wine at 7 Tales

Its place in cocktails
At 7 Tales, the Jason Atherton-owned Japan-themed basement bar, the drinks menu makes full use of as many Japanese ingredients as possible, but it’s the Turnmills Rice Wine that steals the show.

‘Using starch in cocktails opens up more possibilities to different styles of drinks but also allows us to appeal to a wider range of palates, as starch is already so loved in different cuisines,’ says 7 Tales’ Robyn Wilkie. ‘It’s another opportunity for cocktails to embrace food.’

A simple twist on a Martini, it sees uncooked saké rice stirred into Beefeater Gin until the liquid goes cloudy. This is then strained off, stirred with Cocchi Americano and garnished with sesame oil.

The effect of the rice washing is two-fold: it gives a richer texture and mouthfeel to the drink, and it lessens the citrus characteristics of the gin, bringing out creamier, sweeter notes, as well as more of a mineral flavour.

Mike McLellan at Lucky Liquor Co in Edinburgh also went culinary while using rice in his drink, but he incorporated it into an orgeat instead.

‘I was initially looking to do a horchata drink with brown rice and cinnamon, but realised Kaiko Tulloch had done a clarified horchata drink on a previous menu, so I decided to change it to an orgeat,’ he says.

‘The orgeat itself is really easy to make: it’s just equal parts toasted brown rice, rice milk and sugar. I added cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and bay leaves to it because I figured it’s a combination that works in cooking, so why wouldn’t it work in a drink?’

Trinidad & Tobago at Lucky Liquor Co
Trinidad & Tobago at Lucky Liquor Co

Wanting to showcase the orgeat, McLellan settled on using it in a Trinidad Sour riff: ‘Made with the amaro instead of actual bitters, this version came out a little milder and more accessible than the original, while the Mezan rum adds a little bit of extra funk.’

What’s in a name?

Two bars have eschewed the creative process in naming their drinks and have simply called their concoctions ‘Rice’.

The first is Shoreditch whisky bar Black Rock, which has devised a Japanese whisky highball with two rice elements: saké and genmaicha tea (green tea with toasted brown rice). Mixed with coconut water, it’s a long, satisfying drink with plenty of texture and extra nutty flavours from the genmaicha rice.

‘Being a Japanese whisky cocktail, we wanted to spin the drink with some Japanese ingredients,’ explains co-owner Tristan Stephenson. ‘Once I had a formula for something that might work, it struck me that all the ingredients had a close affinity with rice. Also, the taste and texture of the cocktail is nuanced in much the same way as top-quality sushi rice.

‘The rice in genmaicha is unique because it has been cooked at high temperature and the starches converted. Most other rice is unlikely to contribute flavour to such a degree. [If you want to use it,] be sure not to brew the tea too hot – 80°C is about right for most green teas.’

Stephenson also thinks that rice can be used to great effect even when not in liquid form: ‘I did once judge a World Class competition where a Korean competitor garnished a [Johnnie Walker] Blue Label serve with a spoon of chilled rice – that was fantastic.’

A short hop across to Tony Conigliaro’s new bar Untitled in Dalston, and its Rice drink also makes use of saké, along with saké lees – the dead yeast cells left after the brewing process.

Black Rock's Rice
Black Rock's Rice

‘Part of the concept at Untitled is to offer a list of drinks where the flavours resonate with the name of the cocktail,’ explains Drink Factory’s Zoe Burgess, who also happens to be a partner in the new bar. ‘Rice is a very underrated flavour and is not often considered on its own.

‘It is also quite a beautiful favour in how delicate and aromatic it can be,’ she adds.

Having chosen a saké for the drink that was ‘light in aroma but with structure’, the Drink Factory team looked for ways to amplify the rice notes. ‘Saké lees is residual yeast left over from the production of saké and has a great depth of flavour; it’s a little like concentrated rice with a balance of sweet and savoury notes,’ says Burgess.

However, when working with rice in drinks, she is keen that bartenders don’t overlook the textural element: ‘We are constantly working at the peripheries of taste; fat and minerals are also debated as being a sixth taste.

‘For a number of years we have been championing that texture has a large impact on flavour within a drink, and done a number of experiments and launched drinks that explore this through fat washing and using ingredients that add texture. The use of texture was also part of the intrigue in exploring rice as a cocktail.’

With flavours that can run from creamy and sweet to nutty or delicate, and a textural spectrum that can be silky-smooth or grainy, the opportunities to be had by something so cheap and simple are surely worth exploring.

Mike McLellan, Lucky
Liquor Company, EdinburghGlass: Coupette
Garnish: Sprinkle of mole powder and a single star anise
Method: Dry shake, shake
with ice and fine strain.35ml Amaro Angostura
25ml brown rice orgeat*
20ml lemon
15ml egg white
10ml Mezan XO rum

*Blitz 1l brown rice milk, 1l sugar, 1l toasted brown rice with a stick blender until mixed. Toast the
following and add them to the mixture: 1-2 cinnamon sticks,10-15 green cardamom pods,
roughly 10 cloves and 3-4 bay leaves. Let it sit overnight, filter, bottle and keep in the fridge.

7 Tales, LondonGlass: Martini
Garnish: 3 drops of sesame oil
Method: Add rice and gin to mixing glass, ‘mill’ with a swizzle stick for one minute, strain off rice, add Cocchi Americano and stir over ice, strain into the glass.60ml Beefeater Gin
20ml Cocchi Americano
5g Koshihikari rice

Tristan Stephenson,
Black Rock, LondonGlass: Highball
Garnish: Micro-herb popcorn sprout
Method: Build over ice.100ml coconut water
50ml saké
75ml genmaicha tea**
35ml Nikka from the Barrel
2.5ml simple syrup

**Brew 10g genmaicha tea in 1l water
for 3 minutes and strain

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