The surprisingly challenging search for a sake cocktail in Japan.

Photographs by Ko Sasaki. 

If you want to stump a booze expert, have him blind-taste a vintage sake.

That’s what Nick Coldicott, an expat Brit who is one of Japan’s leading liquor experts, told me. “It can come off like an aged stout or a glass of port,” he explained. “Sake has the greatest flavor range of any alcoholic drink out there.”

That surprising scope should make sake, the iconic beverage brewed from fermented rice, a prized ingredient for Japan’s famously skilled bartenders. But when I set off in search of a sake cocktail, I found that Tokyo’s master mixologists might use locally grown fruits and herbs in their preparations, but when it comes to booze—maybe because of their classical bartending training—they’ll reach for a bottle of obscure Italian vermouth rather than a shot of sake.

Sake is almost always drunk neat in Japan. My quest would therefore have to take me to a bar that was not traditionally Japanese. Coldicott pointed me to a café-bar that had recently opened in a trendy area in Tokyo north of Shibuya. It’s called Fuglen, and it’s the first Japanese spin-off of a 50-year-old institution in Oslo, Norway.

Yumi Sato Fuglen Tokyo sake cocktail

Yumi Sato of Fuglen in Tokyo.

A coffeehouse by day, Fuglen transforms at night into a serious yet casual cocktail destination. As soon as I met bar manager Yumi Sato, tall and tattooed, I knew I’d found the bartender I was looking for. She had three sake cocktails on the menu, one of which she’d invented herself. Sato had come to the profession by a route unusual among Tokyo bartenders. She began at Fuglen after working as a barista at another café. Fuglen’s Norwegian bartender took Sato under his wing, and within a few months she was creating her own cocktails.

Sato whipped up her two favorite sake drinks for me. The first, her own invention, was called the Paris Syndrome, a riff on the Parisian, a classic mix of gin, dry vermouth, and crème de cassis. “I substitute sake for vermouth,” Sato said as she swirled the elements, “and I infuse the cassis with oolong tea.” Sake is subtle, she explained, and so it doesn’t usually work well as the lead ingredient in a cocktail. But it’s excellent in a supporting role. Young sake, such as the one from Nagano prefecture she used for this drink, can take the place of dry vermouth; long-aged sake can stand in for sherry or port. Sato poured me the finished drink. The hints of sake and the oolong infusion made it actually more appealing than the original.

Before she mixed the next cocktail, the Nekomancer, Sato poured me a thimbleful of 1978 koshu (aged) sake. It was sweetish yet complex in front, reminiscent of sherry. It was nothing like what I thought of as sake, which, to me, had always tasted more of rice.

Sato gathered, measured, and stirred the ingredients for the Nekomancer: Beneva añejo mezcal, French Suze liqueur, maple syrup dissolved in water, and the ’78 sake. “The important thing is to find flavors that still let the sake taste shine through,” Sato said as I took my first sip. Indeed, the vintage sake rounded out the rough edge of the mezcal, and even with the other, stronger elements in there, I could detect the sweet sake kick at the end.

I complimented Sato on the drink. “I’m still in training,” she demurred, with the graceful humility for which traditional Japanese culture is known. Sake cocktails may one day become all the rage in Tokyo, but hopefully some things will never change.

Tokyo Sake CocktailRECIPE: Nekomancer
(Makes one cocktail)
Recipe from Yumi Sato at Fuglen

Bar manager Yumi Sato uses sake from the Shiga prefecture in Japan’s Kansai region. The national character of Shiga prefecture is neko, which means cat in Japanese; thus the cocktail’s name.

INGREDIENTS
Ice cubes
1 ounce vintage sake 1978
1 ounce mezcal
1/3 ounce Suze
1/6 ounce maple syrup
1 cocktail cherry

MAKE IT
1. Put several ice cubes into a cocktail glass to keep it cold.
2. Put all of the ingredients into a mixing glass, with ice, and stir for 30 to 40 seconds.
3. Strain into the cocktail glass (ice cubes removed).
4. Garnish with the cocktail cherry and serve.

This appeared in the May 2014 issue.