Sake Shows Versatility Across Cocktail Menus

How premium sake is shaking up the drink scene

Some operators are pouring novelty-seekers a product that until recently was seldom seen outside Japanese eateries — premium sake. They’re mixing the fragrant rice-based beverage into signature cocktails, substituting it for wine and spirits in sangria and pouring it as an accompaniment to cuisine. In some cases, they are touting it as a gentler alternative to high-proof liquors. Indeed, they are taking it far beyond its Japanese roots into a variety of settings in which fresh, high-quality, handcrafted beverages are the rule.

An example is Pure Food and Wine, an upscale raw food restaurant in New York City, where one of the best-selling drinks is the Pure Mojito, made with organic ginjo sake, fresh organic mint and lime juice and a splash of cava, priced at $13.

“It has been a real crowd-pleaser since day one,” said beverage director Joey Repice. “Rum is a very distinctive spirit, but the sake in this mojito is a lot cleaner and lighter. It’s refreshing, not overbearing.”

At Aviary, a restaurant in Portland, Ore., with an eclectic menu of small plates and a penchant for local foods, Sake Sangria is the new warm-weather refresher. Ginjo sake is mixed with Oregon pinot gris, plum wine, white grapefruit juice and vodka, plus oranges, grapes and cucumber chunks. It is priced at $5 per glass.

“The sake gives a lot of different flavors and complexity you normally don’t get with sangria,” said co-chef Jasper Shen.

Although sometimes called rice wine, sake is a fermented beverage more akin to beer in its manufacture, although quite different in character. It is made in a traditional process from steamed rice, water, yeast and a mold called koji, which transforms the rice into fermentable sugars. Sake quality is greatly affected by the degree to which the outer surface of the rice grains are polished, or milled away, prior to fermentation. Highly polished rice makes a purer base for brewing high-caliber sake. For example, the grade of sake called junmai is made with rice from which at least 30 percent of the outer grain has been removed. Ginjo sake goes even further, removing at least 40 percent.

Sake comes in an array of styles for matching with food or mixing cocktails. It can be refined, dry and crisp, off dry or fruity and highlighted by hints of melon, green apple, pear or tropical fruits. The alcohol content runs 15 percent to 17 percent, slightly higher than wine but far lower than distilled spirits.