Drink Development: Subtle Statements

Steeped in ancient tradition and shrouded in an aura of mystery, sake is the quintessential Asian spirit. Sake is made from rice — in fact, it can derive from one or more of more than 50 different rice varietals, offering a number of distinct flavor differences, similar to the variety of grape varietals used to make wine. Given the popularity of all things Asian today and a growing awareness of sake among patrons, many bar operators are eager to bring the Japanese spirit into their cocktail programs. Sake, however, is a delicate, almost evasive spirit; once introduced to a cocktail recipe, it can be easily lost in the mix.

To find out how to maximize its best features — floral flavors and aromas, a light body — we checked in with Ryan Magarian, head of Liquid Relations, a cocktail development consultancy based in Portland Ore., who has created drinks involving sake for several clients.

NCB: What’s the first thing to consider when developing drinks with sake?
Magarian: Whether you’re running an Asian concept or simply want to tap into an Asian vibe, the first thing to think about with sake is the connection between the drink and the food being offered. As with any drink development project, the most important point is the context of the menu — or in the case of a cocktail lounge, the concept and the feel of the place, and the approach taken in the rest of the drink menu.

Selecting sake, which is not a full-proof spirit, means you’ll have to be looking to create a lighter drink. Its alcohol content is actually a drawback. 

NCB: How so?
Magarian: I’ve used sake quite a bit and find that you have to use a significant amount, as compared to the amount of other spirits you might introduce, so that the cocktail doesn’t seem flabby and unstructured. Also, it gets lost easily. The minute you put raspberries, simple syrup or another modifier into the glass, you can lose the sake.

NCB: Given its lightness and low proof, how can sake shine in a drink?
Magarian: I advise using it with another spirit. The drink will benefit from boosting the structure with vodka, for example. Also, look into using the more heavily flavored Nigori sakes, but you’ll need to play around with ratios to find the balance that allows the sake to come through.

NCB: What about flavoring elements and modifiers?
Magarian: If you want to taste the sake, use a good amount of it and then introduce minor flavor accents. Take a similar approach as when you want to accentuate the unique characteristics of a vodka — you use very few other elements, so the spirit comes through in the drink.

With sake, if you’re going for a softer drink and want the sake to stand as the only spirit, you’ll want to use three ounces and then add subtle accents, perhaps some raspberry and a splash of soda to top it off. It can be very refreshing and light, so long as the balance is there. Sake is so easily lost; you don’t want to waste the experience by overpowering it, and that takes a careful hand.

NCB: What else have you found to work well with sake?
Magarian: Fruit and floral ingredients draw out flavors and subtle nuances of sake. Keep that in mind when selecting another spirit to go into the drink, and try different spirits and be creative.

I’d say you will have more success with spirits that deliver light, floral and fruit components in their aromatics, textures and flavors. I’ve actually used Hennessy VS Cognac with sake and it’s been a slam dunk, but other styles of Cognac didn’t work. I bet sake would work with Jameson Irish Whiskey just fine, but not at all with a Scotch.

Also, look to some of the newer liqueurs that are coming into the market these days. Try St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, a little citrus to balance and a splash of soda, and you’ve got a lovely Sake Daisy.

I’d be interested in playing with sake and Aperol. There’s a brave new world of liqueurs and bitters that might go exceptionally well with sake. I don’t think sake would bring anything to a sour, a Collins or a long drink, but there are other interesting opportunities to get creative.

Jade Bar at Sanctuary Resort, Paradise Valley, Ariz.

NCB: Once you’ve got your sake cocktail all worked out, what’s the next step to making it a success?
Magarian: You’ve absolutely got to educate the guest. If you’re not running a serious Japanese restaurant or a sake cocktail house, where you can assume some understanding on the part of the guest, you have to write a menu in which sake is the lead-in to the cocktail. Not only does that educate the guest, it also markets the cocktail.

If you’re a high-end nightclub in a market like L.A., and are doing significant volume over the bar, you absolutely have to educate the staff and get them excited so they translate the excitement to the guest.

Sake is quite complicated. Building the knowledge and articulating it person to person is the best way. NCB

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