Within Japan it is no secret that Ishikawa is home to some of the country’s best sake. Water sourced from sacred Mount Hakusan and the prefecture’s superlative rice combine to create a famously smooth spirit that is pleasant to drink hot, cold, or at room temperature. Recently, however, sake has begun to lose favor in Japan, particularly among the younger generation, who are increasingly opting for beer, wine, and especially shochu.
Partially responsible for shochu’s increase in consumption is its versatility. Bartenders frequently serve it as a simple cocktail with citrus and soda water to create easy-to-drink “shochu sours” that appeal to a wide range of drinkers. Although sake has similar potential to function as a versatile cocktail base, tradition and its “old man” image have hindered it from becoming a fashionable cocktail staple. Recently, Discover Kanazawa decided to explore the possibility of refashioning classic sake into a contemporary cocktail with the help of ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel’s food and beverage manager, Akira Kaida, and restaurant captain, Yoshitaka Kato. Kaida and Kato spent a week planning sake cocktails using sake exclusively from Nakamura Brewery to create a menu befitting a kaiseki dinner. The result was a brilliant harmony of Japanese seasonal aesthetics and cultural nostalgia served in various elegant glasses and a tea bowl.
“Kanpai” paired with sashimi
The meal began with Kanpai (toast), plain sake topped with flecks of gold leaf, served in an elegant lacquered cedar masu (square cup) brandished with Nakamura Brewery’s logo. Kato thoughtfully prepared an especially smooth sake that even newcomers would enjoy. The fragrance emanating from the cedar masu and sake was nearly as enjoyable as the flavor.
“Sakura” paired with Spring Chawan Mushi (steamed savory egg custard)
Kato’s first cocktail was visually arresting with a blooming sakura branch garnishing the glass. Sakura syrup sat beneath a mix of daiginjo sake and tonic water creating a delicate pink-clear contrast. The sakura branch functioned as a stirrer to mix in the syrup, resulting in a subtle sweetness that did not obscure the sake’s natural flavor. Kaida explained the concept behind the cocktail as, “We wanted to create the refreshing sense of spring. And spring in Japan is sakura.”
“Spring Snow” paired with wagyu beef, bamboo shoot, and trout
Kato served his second cocktail in a ceramic tea bowl evocative of tea ceremony. Pushing the nostalgia one step further, he mixed matcha liqueur with jyunmaishu sake and gin to create a sake spin on matcha tea. Kato also captured the season with round ice cubes and a single daikon radish snowflake, which suggested snow slowly melting into spring’s revitalizing green; an ingenious representation of the adjacent garden. The flavor was slightly bitter like matcha, and its strong flavor matched well with the accompanying grilled trout and wagyu beef.
“Tsubaki Fizz” paired with seasonal tempura
For his third cocktail, Kato captured the Japanese aesthetic of beauty in simplicity by contrasting clear sake, soda, and tequila with a single vibrant camellia (tsubaki) blossom. The scent of the sake and flower resulted in a fragrance as evocative as the flavor.
Sake Martini paired with a light Japanese-style stew of fish and vegetables
This cocktail was a playful twist on the martini. He added sake to the gin and substituted the olive garnish for a liquored Japanese plum (ume) speared by a kuromoji, a wooden utensil used for cutting and eating sweets in tea ceremony. The result was an elegant Japanese version of a classic.
“Bright Spring” paired with sweet beans, matcha jelly, and fruit
For his final cocktail, Kato mixed umeshu, a sweet plum liqueur, with iced tea and garnished it with nanohana, a wild mountain vegetable harvested in spring. Kato cleverly used the umeshu to imitate a sweet dessert wine.
Kaida and Kato’s flair in working seasonality and Japanese nostalgia into the cocktails complemented the delicious meal by inspiring conversation about the presentation, flavors, and imagery. The use of cherry blossoms to capture spring and tea bowls with matcha liqueur to simulate tea ceremony conjured up images of the romantic Japan many visitor seek. This says nothing of the cocktails’ taste: a sip of any one of these unique cocktails would instantly demonstrate the versatility of sake and easily win new aficionados.
While a single successful cocktail dinner does not guarantee a comeback in sake’s popularity, it does prove that when put in talented hands, sake has extraordinary potential to take guests on a memorable journey through an idyllic Japan.
For readers interested in experiencing this dinner, please visit Discover Kanazawa. Please note that cocktails may vary based on the season.