In Japan, rice was once used as currency, with taxes and stipends paid to the samurai (Japanese nobility) in koku, a unit of volume equivalent to feeding one person with rice for one year. To ensure nothing went to waste, any leftover grains were turned into a “liquid gold” called sake, which is wine made from fermenting rice.
Over the intervening millennium, sake has become Japan’s national drink, and it’s starting to make inroads in the West. In North America, sake is popping up on menus as a wine option, or in cocktails as an ingredient that adds an exotic flair.
Leading the charge in Canada is Masa Shiroki, owner of Artisan SakeMaker on Granville Island in Vancouver. His handcrafted, small-batch traditional and sparkling sakes are made with rice that’s grown in British Columbia, for a uniquely Canadian take on the Japanese spirit.
Shiroki’s sakes have won multiple awards and can be sipped solo as an aperitif, as a table wine with meals, or mixed into cocktails like the Osake Sunrise, which combines Granville Island Junmai Nama Genshu sake with lemon juice, maple syrup and soda water for a dry, fragrant and fruity twist on a fizz. (The full recipe is below.)
“Sake is softer. It doesn’t interfere with the other flavours in a drink,” says Shiroki. “Plus, sake actually contains umami.” Umami is the “fifth taste,” a potent and savoury taste (think beef broth) that shines in Asian cooking.
With all that going for it, it’s little wonder so many bars and restaurants are featuring cocktails that incorporate Japan’s liquid gold.
Here are three sake cocktails to try:
Your palate will go pow with the taste of sweet plums, cherries and tart lime in this short cocktail that combines Takasago plum sake with maraschino liqueur, lime juice, mint and Ketel One vodka. Kayla Atayiu of Foreign Concept in Calgary sought to create a light and powerful drink for summer. Like its namesake (lóng is Chinese for dragon), this drink is mighty.
This crisp, herbaceous cocktail cuts through the high salinity of ramen broth at UnderBelly’s two San Diego locations, and also pairs well with a sunny afternoon. Combining dry TYKU Junmai Sake with cucumber-infused gin, lime juice and basil syrup, this is an Asian spin on a gin gimlet that satisfies, without being overly boozy.
Asia meets the tropics in this spritzer created by the mixology team at Sunda New Asian, located in Chicago and opening in the fall in Nashville. They mix Zipang Sparkling Sake, which is lightly carbonated, with Grey Goose La Poire vodka, pineapple juice and ginger syrup. Then they sweeten with a ground cinnamon rim and a dried-pear garnish that invites sipping with nearly every dish on the menu, from shitake edamame dumplings to pad Thai.
Recipe: Osake Sunrise
1 or 2 oz. Granville Island Osake Junmai Nama Genshu sake
0.5 oz. fresh cold lemon juice
0.5 oz. cold Canadian maple syrup
2-2.5 oz. club soda
Glass: Champagne flute (6 oz.)
Garnish: Japanese cucumber slice, lemon peel
Method: In a mixing glass, combine all ingredients except club soda and stir with ice. Strain into Champagne flute. Top with soda water, stir and garnish with a Japanese cucumber slice (rub around rim of glass) and lemon peel dropped into the glass.—Recipe courtesy of Masa Shiroki, Artisan SakeMaker, Granville Island