In Netflix’s Drink Masters when mixologists Kate Gerwin and Loyd Von Rose pair up to make The Matchmaker, their soju and scotch tipple, the cocktail competition series is in its seventh episode. By then, of course, neither USA — where the series was shot — nor the contestants were new to Japanese liquors. In fact, semi-finalist bartender, Suzu aka Christian Suzuki-Orellana and Loyd Von Rose, had already used spirits like, sake and soju, on several occasions. And Suzu, especially, as a homage to his half-Japanese heritage. But when Kate and Loyd talk about using a turmeric and curry leaf horchata with soju, show host and comic, Tone Bell says, “I’ve never tasted soju, but am excited to try it.” Bell’s excitement would perhaps be mirrored in bars and restaurants across India where liquors from Japan are steadily garnering an audience.
The newly opened pan-Asian restaurant Soba Sassy in Kolkata’s Ho Chi Minh Sarani, for instance, is going beyond the garden-variety Sake Bomb, and serving other sake-based cocktails, including a house liqueur that is made with the Korean soju. Head bartender, Swastik Chattopadhyay, loves his sake and admits to “finding it a challenge to use in a cocktail because of its delicate flavour.” He has chosen to combine it with their housemade amaretto and rose syrups, with the restaurant gearing up to bring umeshu to the city.
Sake, once only the preserve of star hotels in the city — like The Park or later entrants like, The Westin and Taj City Centre — is going to be available this month in other establishments, too, including experiential liquor store, Hedonne, rooftop gastro bar LMNO_Q, and an upcoming Asian bistro in Auris hotel in Kolkata.
While Kolkata may have only now woken up to it, the trend has been around for some time in the western part of the country. Wasabi at Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai which is in its 18th year has been serving sake “nearly from inception”. Masu, in Pune’s five-star hotel Conrad, has not just put sake on the menu but also its walls. Walk through the sake cellar inspired décor to an Asian chic bar that has on its menu drinks like, Jasmine Blossom, which pairs jasmine tea with sake or Sakamai that uses seaweed infused vodka, along with the Japanese staple.
Back in Mumbai, Slink & Bardot, stocks a smattering of umeshu and sake cocktails, despite a global menu that is not obviously Asian. Their new cocktail menu includes Koli Echoes, “which is crafted by blending sake, yuzu, and umeshu with vodka, and served it in a sake pot over cups containing frozen lychee. This not only helps maintain the temperature of the drink, but also enhances its flavour,” says head mixologist, Santosh Kukreti. This kind of over-attention to detail is the hallmark of Japanese bartending, much like its food.
A few kilometres away, popular modern Asian restaurant in Bandra’s Hill Road, Seefah proclaims its love for umeshu on its menu with a host of cocktails featuring the popular plum liqueur. Bartender Sunil Prathab Muthupandi names their cocktails like Seefah Martini, Smoky Plum and East 75, all of which use both classic plum umeshu and its yuzu variant. Using umeshu — a Swett Japanese liqueur made by steeping ume plums in soju — and sake was a no-brainer for chef-preneur Karan Bane who wanted the cocktails to “complement the Asian Thai menu”. His favourite is the Japanese saketini that uses umeshu and is a play on the martini.
South of the country, Bengaluru’s hip, young, rooftop resto-bar, Kaze too, suggests using umeshu as an aperitif or in light fruity cocktails. In addition to an exhaustive sake and soju menu, they also have several cocktails that hero sake with Asian herbs and aromatics. Japanese origin-whisky and gins are not just popular; they may have begun the trend. Celebrated mixologist and co-owner of India’s best bar, Sidecar, Yangdup Lama loves using Japanese whisky Hibiki Select in classic whisky cocktails like Manhattans.
Paradox Of Taste
This currency of Japanese liquor and cocktails is a study in contrast to its unpopularity in its home country. After their sales dropped across the island state, the Japanese government launched its much-reviled Sake Viva campaign last year. While criticised in their home country for promoting alcohol culture for commerce, it has coincided with a rise in exports of these liquors. Exports for sake and soju were at a record 12 year high in 2022. “With globalization and social media, people are coming across new things on a regular basis and thus there is more demand for experiencing such things. I think the Sake Viva campaign is an example of that,” says Anuj Mishra, Assistant Restaurant Manager, The Westin Kolkata Rajarhat.
The liquors’ relative availability and affordability is also a factor. While premium sakes are available between Rs 3,000 and Rs 4,000, sparkling sake comes for as low as Rs 1,500 a bottle, making it an easy-drinking option that can be stocked in place of wine or beer. Ironically it is the rise in popularity of beer in Japan that is widely believed to have led to a fall in domestic consumption of these liquors.
Strength And Flavour
Lama attributes these spirits’ popularity to them being “big on flavours”. Brown Koji Boy’s owner, Prachet Sancheti, who uses the koji mould to create a variety of condiments like, miso, tamari, and soya sauce, says it is sake’s inherent taste that makes it popular. “There is a cleanliness of taste with sake that comes because it is fermented with koji. The aromas and mouthfeel are great. The only thing that one may have to watch out for is that it is slightly sweeter, so a mixologist would have to offset that.” While sake may seem sweeter it is distilled spirit Soj’s neutrality that works in its favour, feels Ritesh Srivastav, F&B Consultant of The Auris. “Unlike other distilled spirits, soju is not bitter, which makes it an easier drink.”
“I just think bartenders needed something new to experiment with and this offered a newer canvas. People are getting tired of gin,” jokes Sancheti, whose miso, tamari amazake (a sort of alcohol-free sake) is used in several Japanese and Asian restaurants across the country.
Sake and soju’s inherent adaptability is also a factor. “If the meal can go with cooked rice, it will certainly pair well with sake. And like wines, sake also has varieties — rich, sweet and dry, so one can pair food accordingly. A sparkling sake can also easily be served in place of beer at a house party,” says Mishra whose current favourite cocktail is the Tokyo Mule, “which is a twist on the classic Moscow Mule and uses sake with cucumber juice, vodka, ginger syrup and lime juice.”
Take On Technique
Swastik believes this is owed to the “skills and technique” used by Japanese bartenders. “Right from the ice-making process to the style of shaking, to using hand-crafted ingredients, making one’s own syrups and cordials… this attention to detail that makes a good cocktail,” he says.
Japanese and Asian menus are having a moment and documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Chef’s Table only perpetuate the romantic idea of the Japanese attention to craft and quality. “A Japanese Highball, if you look at it, is nothing but the ’90s whiskey soda that is made with an incredible degree of finesse and precision, in terms of the soda you are using and the ice that you use,” says Keshav Prakash, founder and curator of The Vault, a Mumbai-based import house for premium whiskies spirits and a platform to develop fine spirits appreciation and culture in India.
These liquors have hit that certain je ne sais quois that makes up the pulse of today’s youth. Be it its presence on the ‘Gram with food influencers creating their take on the liquors with popular cocktails, or the much Instagrammed sake bombs, or even its ubiquity in shows like Drink Masters. “It works because now one wants every experience on social media. The Sake Bomb with shots of sake falling into the beer makes for ‘content’,” says Srivastav and likens the act of watching a Japanese bartender creating a cocktail to that of “watching an artistic process.”
Unlike modern mixology, Japanese cocktails call for attention to the basics and keeping things simple. No fat washing, sous vide or infusions, but simple shaking styles and a shaker and ice quality make up the cornerstones of this school of cocktail making. One of its most iconic practitioners Kazuo Uyeda of Tender Bar in Ginza, whose book Cocktail Techniques is a modern-day bible for mixologists across the world is said to have invented the art of the “hard shake”. In his book, while talking about the iconic technique, he explains: “The aeration acts like a cushion that prevents the bite of the ingredients and the sharpness of the alcohol from directly attacking the tongue. The bubbles expand the alcohol, and the flavour becomes softer. Those constituent elements of the alcohol, which are bunched together, gradually become one. This is the way I visualise what’s happening, when I shake the shaker.”
So then, what is common between your uncle’s 90s whiskey soda and the Japanese Highball? Well, everything and nothing.