The new wave of saké cocktails

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

23 September 2019

The UK's perception of saké is changing, and bartenders are making the most of the Japanese drink. From the new Sakétini to low-abv serves, Kate Malczewski dives into the world of saké cocktails


Like Dungeons & Dragons and Britney Spears circa 2007, saké has suffered a bit of an image problem. Common misconceptions – saké must be drunk hot, saké is highly alcoholic, the list goes on – have muddied British drinkers’ understanding of the complex Japanese beverage and kept it from breaking into the mainstream.

For years, saké’s limited use as a cocktail ingredient did little to help its reputation. The Sakétini, perhaps the only well-known saké cocktail, got the same bad rap as its 90s bedfellow the Appletini for besmirching the good name of the Martini. Saké’s applications in cocktails pretty much stopped there.

Bartenders are catching on to different styles and their nuances of flavour to create a new generation of serves

But, just as Ms Spears persevered and D&D became socially acceptable, the tide is turning for saké. Exports to the UK are on the rise, craft styles never seen before in this country are making an entrance and high-end restaurants are adding premium expressions to their wine lists.

Saké cocktails are changing, too. Bartenders are catching on to different styles and their nuances of flavour, exploring what the corners of this massive category can bring to cocktails, harnessing them to create a new generation of saké-forward serves. And yes, the Saké Martini is still hanging around – but it looks very different than it did during the age of Sex & the City…

Saké as the star

Back when Carrie Bradshaw was sipping her Sakétini, the drink was likely to be laden with sugar syrups and licentiously fruity liqueurs. Needless to say, it probably didn’t taste much of saké.

Nanbu Cup
By the Shochu Lounge bar team

Glass Ceramic cup
Garnish Shiso leaf
Method Combine ingredients in a mixing glass over ice. Stir, strain and garnish.

50ml Nanbu Bijin Roka Ginjo Namachozo Saké
15ml Nikka Coffey Gin

Now bartenders are taking the Saké Martini back to basics. At the Shochu Lounge, tucked below Japanese restaurant Roka Charlotte Street in London, the bar team is reviving the much-maligned semi classic by defining its key elements and working from there.

‘A Saké Martini should really be saké and gin, and sometimes a few drops of vermouth,’ says Simon Freeth, Roka’s global director of bars. ‘What we want to do is start from the saké, then think about the botanicals that go with it.’

To illustrate this idea, he points to two different Saké Martinis at the Shochu Lounge. Both serves use ginjo (alcohol-added) sakés, as they’re better able ‘to work as the star of the drink’.

The first is made with Tosatsuru Azure, a saké known for its minerality. ‘Azure is in quite a minimal, dry style, so we’re looking for a spirit that’s a little more vegetal. Something like Hendrick’s Gin, with its cucumber, works, along with just a barspoon of Cocchi Americano,’ says Freeth. The resulting drink is crisp and refreshing, an amplification of the subtleties of the saké.

He applies a similar method for the other Saké Martini variation, but with very different results. For the Nanbu Cup, he uses a saké brewed especially for Roka – a namachozo, pasteurised only once for a tangy flavour. It’s rich and full bodied, says Freeth, so a spicier, more herbal gin is ideal. He selects Nikka Coffey Gin because of the kick it gets from sansho pepper.

Of course, another key element in this equation is proportions. For their Saké Martinis, the Roka team tip the scales towards the saké in a big way. The latter serve unapologetically uses 50ml saké to 15ml Nikka Coffey. ‘The gin is 43% abv, so you don’t need very much to have an impact,’ Freeth explains.

The Shochu Lounge’s different takes on the Saké Martini all abide by a central principle – one that seems to play a key role in many of the saké cocktails showing up on menus today. ‘It’s about understanding the qualities of the saké and then enhancing them by what we mix it with,’ summarises Freeth.

Shochu Lounge head bartender Alessandro Parmegiani elaborates: ‘This is the real issue when working with saké in cocktails: Saké is such a delicate, unique drink. There’s so much work behind it. You have to try to develop the flavour of the saké, instead of just looking at it as balancing a drink.’

Going bold

Putting saké at the forefront doesn’t mean the drink’s other flavours always have to be restrained. Though the Shochu Lounge’s cocktails contain relatively delicate, crisp sakés, there’s a whole realm of sakés that are rich in umami – and these savoury styles can stand up to, and even boost, bold flavours.

‘Take a Bloody Mary, for example,’ says Oliver Hilton-Johnson, saké educator and director of distributor Tengu Saké. ‘You can do all sorts of stuff with it, generally non-alcoholic, to increase the umami, [such as add] Worcestershire sauce or fish sauce. But the base alcohol, vodka, thins the flavour, whereas a rich umami-style saké enhances it.’

And these umami-heavy expressions don’t need to entirely replace the base spirit to amp up a drink. Hilton-Johnson also recommends adding a small amount of a very rich style – for instance, aged saké, known as koshu, or one made using the yamahai or kimoto brewing methods, which result in a funky, bold flavour – to add an umami kick.

Bacardi Heritage & Saké
By Krys Kropaczewski, Artesian

Glass Chilled coupette
Garnish None
Method Combine ingredients in a mixing glass over ice. Stir and strain.

40ml Bacardi Heritage Rum
30ml Tamagawa Time Machine Junmai Kimoto Saké
7.5ml simple syrup (1:1)

This is the approach bartender Krys Kropaczewski took when developing his Bacardi Heritage & Saké serve for the minimalism-themed menu of Artesian at The Langham, London. Tasked with creating a drink with just two main ingredients, he knew he wanted to use Bacardi Heritage Rum, and was looking for an additional element that would amplify its earthy notes.

He experimented with dessert wines at first, but ultimately went for Tamagawa Time Machine. It’s a saké made in the traditional kimoto style, according to a recipe from the 1700s – ‘weird and wonderful’, as Kropaczewski describes it, and an example of saké’s ability to pack an umami punch. Time Machine’s intense soya, miso and blue-cheese flavours highlight the mushroom-like quality of the rum. The drink is served straight up, which allows for complexity that ‘develops the longer the liquid sits in the glass’.

Indeed, the same phenomenon that allows certain sakés to be served hot can also bring a dynamic element to cocktails. Hilton-Johnson explains this temperature-induced evolution of flavour: ‘There are a number of reasons that saké can work at different temperature levels, but predominantly it’s to do with the acidity,’ he says. ‘Some sakés are abundant in acids like glutamic and lactic acid, which are really delicious when they’re warmed up.’

Taking the low road

Despite the pervasive myth that saké’s alcohol levels will have you under the table before you see the bottom of your glass, its abv isn’t much higher than that of wine. Legally a saké can’t be more than 22% abv, and most sit between 15% to 16%.

Fiz-Mo
By Tom Wilson, Kanpai London

Glass Flute
Garnish Candied ginger
Method Wash the glass with apple syrup. Pour vermouth into the glass. Top with sparkling saké and garnish.

10ml apple syrup
25ml Ver.mo Ruby Vermouth
100ml Kanpai Fizu Sparkling Saké

It makes sense, then, that this new wave of saké cocktails stretches beyond Saké Martinis and boozy umami-rich serves, and into that increasingly trendy realm of low-abv drinks. ‘If you use saké as the core alcoholic ingredient, then after dilution you’re going to end up with a cocktail that is pretty low abv in comparison to a full-whack spirits-based cocktail,’ remarks Hilton-Johnson.

At the taproom of Peckham-based saké producer Kanpai London, co-founder Tom Wilson has developed a menu that capitalises on his saké’s ability to work with the low-abv cocktail trend. The Fiz-Mo is a spritzy serve with 25ml of red vermouth topped up with 100ml of Fizu, Kanpai’s 11.5% abv sparkling saké (some sparkling sakés sit as low as 5% abv).

He also mixes a simple Saké & Tonic using Kanpai’s Sumi Tokubetsu Junmai. At just 14.5% abv, Sumi makes this serve significantly less boozy than a standard spirit-and-tonic drink. However, to get the flavour right, the proportions differ from a typical G&T. ‘We keep the ratio [of saké to tonic] at 50:50 because we want people to be able to really taste the saké,’ he explains.

Given the scope of the saké category, there can’t be hard and fast rules for crafting saké cocktails – but there is a thread that runs through each drink in the diverse realm of modern saké serves. ‘It’s important that the saké is always respected and prevalent,’ says Roka’s Freeth.

Other than that, says Hilton-Johnson, there’s room to explore. ‘As the market expands, a wide variety [of styles are] coming into the UK, which gives bartenders a lot to play with.’ It seems the Sakétini is just a tiny drop in the vast ocean of saké cocktails after all.

Getting practical
Saké expert Oliver Hilton-Johnson gives his top tips on saké storage and surplus

Saké has three enemies – light, heat and oxygen – so the back bar is the worst place you can stick it.

Light and heat are easy to deal with through a bit of thought – just stick it in the fridge – but shelf life is the one thing you need to bear in mind. You need to be able to get through the volume [before the saké oxygenates]. If you put it in a cocktail that you know will shift, or you put a large addition in a drink, then you know you’ll get through it. Putting it on by the glass can help as well.

Alternatively, if an establishment already has saké, then it’s really useful to put it in a cocktail, as well as serving it in its natural state. This ensures the volume is used and there’s less or no wastage. Sakés can vary widely though, so talk to your suppliers and get them to suggest one that has a good shelf life.

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