Kim has been in the bar industry for around 15 years. Sake has been part of his bar experience in some way for much of it. He started at Sushi Samba, the New York establishment where Carrie Bradshaw and the rest of the Sex in the City crew stopped for late night Cosmos in a couple episodes. Samba has since closed, but it was part of that first wave of bars putting sake on cocktail menus. Sake cocktails (and not just Saketinis) have been on the edge of having a moment for two decades.
In 2003, SF Gate, a local San Francisco publication, wrote about how sake cocktails had been buoyed “into the mainstream” by bartenders’ preference for low alcohol beverages (sound familiar?). Bartenders at Blowfish Sushi To Die For told the publication at the time that the sake cocktail movement had started some five or six years ago. In 2004, The New York Times wrote about trendy young poets drinking sake cocktails, also in San Francisco. Those were the roots for the modern sake cocktail movement, and current bars have been ever so slowly catching up. This time around, however, things are different. It won’t be 2038 by the time sake is an understood or even common component in cocktails.
For one, respectable cocktail bars can be found across the country, not just in major cities as was the case before. That bar proliferation is sustained by drinkers who are seeking out new drinks and new experiences. Low-alcohol beverages are once again part of the conversation after heady days of strong and stirred classics, as evidenced by bartender predictions of more low-alcohol cocktails and even no-alcohol cocktails. When asked about sake cocktails, Cody Goldstein, the New York-based bar consultant often referred to as the Willy Wonka of cocktails, said that sake drinks have a chance to be a top summer drink trend in 2018. The only thing still holding some bars (and the general cocktail-making crowd) back is not knowing how to properly use sake.
“In my opinion, the best candidates for cocktails are sakes that won't get lost with other mixers,” says Monica Samuels, a WSET sake educator and sales manager at Vine Connections. Plum- or yuzu-infused sakes fall into this category, as do high-alcohol genshu styles, nigoris that are thick and milky, and savory sakes that can be used like sherry. Samuels mixes sake into subtle drinks or combines them with spirits as big as bourbon. The one thing you don’t want to do, both Samuels and Kim say, is overwhelm the sake with too many flavors.
“You should be able to parse out each component and see how it plays with everything else,” Kim says. “Otherwise it’s a wasted ingredient.”
Below are three cocktails that are easy enough to make at home that treat the sake as anything but a wasted ingredient.