Elevating Cocktails with Sake, Shochu, and Authentic Japanese Ingredients
Japan has a wealth of drinks and flavours to explore when it comes to creating cocktails, and there’s a growing number of bartenders doing just that. Whether they’re mixing with Japanese drinks like sake and shochu, or incorporating specifically Japanese ingredients like yuzu or shiso, bartenders are making the most of what the country has to offer, whether they work in Japanese venues or not.
Sake cocktails: insights from the experts
The drink that Japan is probably best known for, the country’s rice wine offers an array of styles, each with their own flavour characteristics, and providing some serious mixing potential.
At craft sake brewery Kanpai, located in London’s Peckham, taproom and hospitality manager Luis Ribeiro is seeing greater appreciation of sake’s cocktail potential. “There's definitely growing curiosity about how sake characteristics can be brought out in cocktails, and how it plays and pairs with other flavours.”
Attila Dankovics, sales manager for Japan’s Ethical Spirits, is also seeing this. “Sake is finding its way into cocktails, adding depth and complexity to various recipes,” he says.
Ribeiro lists a number of London bars that have featured sake on their cocktail lists recently, including Peckham neighbour Funkidory, Seed Library in Shoreditch, Silverleaf in Bishopsgate and Lyaness on the Southbank.
When it comes to mixing with sake, Ribeiro has some pointers. “The main thing to bear in mind is that sake is very sensitive to temperatures, and each sake will have an optimal temperature to be enjoyed at,” he says. “This also allows some sakes to work wonderfully in hot drinks as well – it makes a delicious hot toddy.”
At Kanpai’s taproom, the team are making good use of their products in mixed drinks. “We use a wide variety of our Kanpai sakes in a number of cocktails, from high umami sakes like our Umami 100, a 100% koji sake liqueur, as well as our signature series,” confirms Ribeiro. “They all have something different to offer, and the lovely umami backbone is always welcomed.”
That point about umami is a crucial one, with that savoury flavour commonly associated with Japanese flavours and cuisine, and able to bring an extra dimension to cocktails too.
Other Japanese spirits in cocktails
Japan’s own distilled spirit, shochu, offers a wealth of mixing potential too. “Shochu has very particular characteristics that you don't necessarily find with other spirits,” says Ribeiro. “The fact that it can be enjoyed in a manner of different ways allows it to be a very flexible spirit that can be enjoyed neat, on ice, with water, warm or as a highball, like a Chu Hi or Oolong Hi.”
Then there’s Japanese whiskey, something that the team at Sexy Fish in London know a thing or two about. “We have the world's largest Japanese whisky collection, and whilst it forms the majority of the back bar, it also features heavily on our signature menu,” says group head bartender James Hawkins.
“We also try, where feasible, to champion Japanese spirits,” he adds. “For example, we have the only exclusively distilled gin from Ki No Bi, which features a post distillation maceration of Dai Dai Oranges, a symbol of longevity in Japan.”
Similarly, the gins produced by Ethical Spirits incorporate ingredients and flavours that are uniquely Japanese. “Our gin stands out by showcasing a hidden gem through unique ingredients,” confirms Dankovics. “For instance, we utilise sake kasu or shochu as a base, instead of the typical grain spirit, imparting an umami character to the gin.”
The Ethical Spirits team in the UK has created a few examples of classic cocktails reimagined with a Japanese twist, such as a French 75 with the company’s Elegant Gin alongside yuzu and sparkling sake.
Another cocktail, a Martini variation, incorporates La Tomato, a Japanese liqueur popular with bartenders in Japan. “It performs exceptionally well in highball drinks, and in our case, it adds a delightful touch to a savoury Dry Martini.”
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Japanese flavours in cocktails
Beyond its alcoholic drinks, there’s no shortage of interesting Japanese flavours to explore. “Japan is renowned for their high quality of products and attention to detail,” says Hawkins. “Much like any ingredient, if you have a good quality product, you want to highlight it. As such, we are always looking for flavours that will either enhance or complement elements.”
Hawkins gives the example of the bar’s Kumquat & Shiso cocktail, which uses Strega and Peychaud’s Bitters to highlight the aromatic notes of the shiso, or the Yuzu & Mint, in which Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve “pairs perfectly with the bright and fragrant notes of the yuzu”. To achieve this, yuzu is used in three ways, as fresh juice, oleo and yuzushu (yuzu sake).
At Tokyo-inspired restaurant and cocktail bar Apothecary East, in London’s Shoreditch, the team is also making good use of the flavours that Japan has to offer. The bar’s current seasonal Umeshu Hai combines Toki whisky with umeshu plum wine, peach liqueur, bitters and ginger ale, while other drinks incorporate everything from Japanese gin and yuzu liqueur, to sake and green tea.
Dankovics has noticed more bartenders using green tea in their cocktails. “Matcha, powdered green tea, adds an earthy and slightly bitter taste that can be incorporated into cocktails or used as a garnish,” he says.
Beyond the ingredients and flavours themselves, a Japanese approach to food and drink can add another dimension to cocktail creation. On a practical level, the team at Apothecary directly draw on the style of drinks popular in izakayas and bars across Japan, including classics like Highballs and Sours.
Hawkins takes more general inspiration from Japanese culture. “Japanese cuisine has a philosophy of each bite having balance. All the elements are designed to be enjoyed individually, and contain acidity, umami, saltiness and sweetness,” he says. “This can be translated into balance in cocktails, by making sure all elements are balanced and in harmony. Sweetness can be balanced through dry or acidic elements, while rich flavours can be cut through by lengthening with soda, or cut with bitterness. The options are endless, but always keeping harmony in your mind will allow you to balance any ingredients.”
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