How to Make Sake Cocktails

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Take it from me: though it isn’t a regular cocktail staple, sake is a versatile and entertaining base to build drinks on.

Made from a special strain of rice—one you wouldn’t want to serve in a stir fry—the fungus Aspergillus oryzae (used during fermentation) and water, sake usually has around 15 percent alcohol by volume (and 18 to 20 percent before it’s diluted), so it’s a stitch stronger than most beer and wines.

There are two basic sake types: Futsū-shu and Tokutei meishō-shu. The former is like house wine, and the latter a “special designation” sake. Within the special designation there are eight varieties distinguished out by characteristics like "rice-polishing ratio."

Trying to figure the nuances out can be difficult, especially here in the US, where the type isn’t always listed. Don’t let any of this scare you – the drinking life shouldbe an adventure.

My suggestion when shaking or stirring a drink with sake is to try and use a sake labeled Junmai, one of these special designations made with pure rice, or a sake that is brewed with a high percentage of Junmai, such as Harushika, which is dry and citrus-y and refreshing. If you can’t find a Junmai, then pick a sake that says it is “extra dry” and you’ll be set.

Bamboo Cocktail
This is somewhat like a sake martini, but with a better name, a bit more vermouth, and increased layers of flavor thanks to the addition of bitters. The drink, using this recipe from Wine Cocktails, is ideal before dinner: Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice cubes. Add 2 ounces sake, 1 ounce dry vermouth, and 2 dashes orange bitters (Seattle-made Scrappy’s orange bitters is a good choice). Shake well and then strain into a cocktail glass.

This is one of those words that has attached itself to a number of drinks. I, naturally, think this spring/summer treat (also from Wine Cocktails) is the best of the many Gong possibilities, due to how well the sake mingles with the bubbles and citrus. To make, fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice cubes. Add 2-1/2 ounce sake and 1-1/2 ounces pomegranate liqueur (PAMA is dandy here). Shake well. Fill a highball or comparable glass with ice cubes. Strain the sake-pomegranate mixture over the ice, and then fill with ginger ale almost to the top. Stir briefly and garnish with an orange slice.

The Sake’d Saint
This is the most exotic of our three sake drinks, thanks to the star fruit. Also known as coromandel gooseberry, kamranga or five-finger fruit, star fruit grows on the Carambola tree, and has a slightly tart taste as well as a striking shape. You can get it at Uwajimaya. This recipe is also from Wine Cocktails: Add a star fruit slice and a lemon wheel to a cocktail shaker. Using a muddler or a wooden spoon, muddle well. Fill the cocktail shaker halfway with ice cubes. Add 1-1/2 ounces sake, 1-1/2 ounces St. Germain, and 1/4 ounce apricot brandy. Shake extra well. Fine strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with the second star fruit slice.

Photo copyright Melissa Punch and Harvard Common Press, 2009.