The vast variety of styles and flavors that can make sake seem intimidating is also what makes the brew a secret weapon in cocktails. “Sake is a fun medium to work with because it has a lot of applications,” says Billy Weston, general manager at Watertrade + Otoko in Austin, Texas. “It’s very versatile and, stylistically, any sake can work in a given cocktail, depending on what you’re going for as an end result. The possibilities are nearly endless.”
Sake falls into three main categories: Junmai-shu, Honjozo-shu, and Futsushu. Differences in milling the rice (Gingo and Daiginjo are grades of sake related to this) and how it’s brewed (Genshu, Kimoto, Nigori, Namazake, and Yamahai styles) will impact the flavor, clarity, and mouthfeel. Sake profiles can range from floral, fruity, and creamy to umami-rich and earthy. Weston favors Genshu, an undiluted sake, because its body and full flavor can stand up to high-proof spirits and other components. For his Nine-Tailed Fox, the perfumed Asian pear and raspberry notes in Bushido Ginjo Genshu sake mesh perfectly with dry sparkling rosé and white peach. “The wine balances the flavors—too much fruit and it can be cloying,” he says. “It also acts as a textural element that keeps the drink silky.”
Kenta Goto, owner of New York City’s Bar Goto and Brooklyn’s Bar Goto Niban, often makes Martinis with the addition of sake. “I tend to use Namazake, an unpasteurized sake; Genshu, an undiluted sake with stronger flavor; or Kijoshu, a complex sake with a touch of sweetness. They’re richer and fuller and won’t get easily overwhelmed in a cocktail,” he says. At Formosa Café in Los Angeles, bar manager Bryan Brumbaugh uses a Junmai sake as the lead in his Omukashi, an Old Fashioned riff that highlights the sake’s savory notes.
Regardless of which style of sake is used, Goto stresses the importance of paying attention to the proof, as most standard drink recipes call for spirits of 80 proof or higher. “You can’t just swap the spirit with sake,” he says. “You need to tweak the ratio between the sake and remaining ingredients by dialing back sour and sweet elements or by amping up the liquor elements to achieve the right balance and depth.”
Goto’s Far East Side—made with a fruit-forward Junmai Daiginjo, elderflower liqueur, blanco tequila, shiso, and yuzu bitters—is a good example. The tequila increases the proof without overpowering the sake, while its grassy notes complement the shiso. “Depending upon the type, sake can also work in any temperature cocktail, from icy cold to hot,” says Goto. “It’s a great way to discover new and unexpected flavor profiles.”
Far East Side
2 oz. Junmai Daiginjo sake (Goto uses Dassai 45)
3 1/2 tsp. elderflower liqueur
2 1/2 tsp. blanco tequila
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
4-5 shiso leaves
1 drop yuzu bitters (optional)
Tools: mixing tin, muddler, mixing glass, strainer
Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing tin and muddle the shiso leaves. Strain into a mixing glass, add ice, stir, then strain again into a coupe.
Kenta Goto, Bar Goto, New York City
2 oz. Junmai sake (Brumbaugh uses Heavensake Junmai 12)
1 oz. gin
3/4 oz. rum-based falernum (such as Bitter Truth Golden Falernum)
2 dashes orange bitters
Tools: barspoon, strainer
Garnish: orange peel
Stir all of the ingredients with ice, strain into a glass filled with fresh ice, then garnish.
Bryan Brumbaugh, Formosa Café, Los Angeles
3 oz. Ginjo Genshu sake (Weston uses Bushido)
1 1/2 oz. white peach puree (Weston recommends The Perfect Puree or Goya)
1/2 oz. yuzu juice (such as Yamajirushi brand, available online)
2 oz. dry sparkling rosé
Tools: shaker, strainer, fine strainer
Glass: shallow bowl or rocks glass
Garnish: edible flower
Shake the first 3 ingredients with ice, then double strain into a glass holding a single large ice cube. Add the sparkling wine just to ice’s top, then garnish.
Billy Weston, Watertrade + Otoko, Austin, Texas