It’s made from rice. It’s brewed, rather than distilled. And it’s a far more versatile alcoholic beverage than you might give it credit for — capable of taking on a variety of different flavors based on how much the rice is milled and how much alcohol has been added to it.
Sake, originating from Japan, is often called “rice wine,” but because it’s created in part by converting starch to sugar for fermentation, it’s more akin to beer. That’s just one of the facts about the drink to be aware of before World Sake Day on Wednesday. Once just a national event in Japan (Oct. 1 is traditionally the starting date of sake production in the country), it’s now an opportunity to become familiar with one of the lesser known beverages around. Three Austin restaurants can help further your education with sake cocktails and even a sake pairing dinner.
The Japanese restaurant on South Congress Avenue has a handful of sakes that you can sip straight in masu boxes — an easy way to catch all the nuance, from sharp and clean to floral and aromatic, that sake can deliver — but once you recognize some of their defining notes, the seven sake punches show off how sake can complement other cocktail ingredients.
“Sake is subtle like vodka, which makes it very versatile,” Lucky Robot’s Mason Evans said. “So consider the sorts of characteristics in incorporating sake (into cocktails) that you would with vodka. Some of sake’s finer notes can get lost in overpowering ingredients.”
That means you’ve got to know your sake. Evans does. He’s been working with sake for 10 years at Lucky Robot, and his punches are as varied as sake can be. For example, the Green Manalishi (named after a Fleetwood Mac song) starts off sweet, then gets feisty with a pinch of serrano pepper, before finishing with cucumber’s mild bitterness. The Barton Springs, a combination of prosecco and sake, is far more floral, in part thanks to the blueberry puree and lychee (a fragrant fruit native to Asia) mixed in. And the Lebowski, my unexpected favorite, is essentially a sake White Russian, rich and not too sweet.
In honor of Sake Day, Wednesdays now feature an all-day happy hour, with the Lewbowski, Peach Blossom and Green Manalishi available in 33 oz. carafes for $9.
A new sake cocktail will debut at Uchiko just in time for World Sake Day — and bar manager Nic Vascocu decided to get a little experimental with the sake itself, smoking it and steeping charred applewood chips in the sake for 12 hours. The fall cocktail also has lemon juice, maple syrup and apple bitters, but it’s the smoked quality of the sake complementing tart apple in a savory balancing act that you’ll notice most.
The Uchiko staff is careful in selecting sake for both cocktails and straight sipping. Owner Tyson Cole noted that you don’t have to choose a high-grade sake, one with rice that’s been brewed to a very fine polish, to enjoy it.
“As long as it tastes good, that’s all that matters,” he said. “You need a good gateway choice because I think people are intimidated by sake.”
Another easy way to try sake is to pair it with food. And why wouldn’t you do that at Uchiko, where the cocktails are often influenced by the cuisine? Cole said it’s “one of the best pairing beverages. It’s less acidic than wine, it’s very clean and it lets the food shine by standing in the background, without disappearing.”
Although this Japanese restaurant, located in the Hill Country Galleria, might be a bit far from the Austin core, it’s well worth the drive out to Bee Caves to explore the selection of sake that owner Shawn McClain prides himself on carrying. He spent a few years living and working in bars in Japan and said that though beer and soju, a vodka-like Korean liquor, were most popular there, he tended to prefer sake. “I’d be working from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. and then drink ’til noon,” he said with a smile.
And at his restaurant here, which attempts to bring alive the culture and food he misses after being away for so long, you won’t find any sake cocktails for a reason. Many natives of Japan don’t drink sake mixed with anything, and anyway, he said, “I want people to really taste sake since it’s such a relative mystery to some.”
He poured me a few small shots and explained that like beer, sake comes in different types all primarily based on the polish of the rice and whether alcohol has been distilled into it, a choice that some brewers make to help extract flavor and aroma. Plus, sake “really starts opening up at room temperature” — which means that like Evans and Cole, he doesn’t recommend hot sake even though that’s often how people drink it.
Tadashi will be hosting a seven-course sake dinner featuring fresh fish and seasonal delicacies in celebration of World Sake Day. Among the courses that will be carefully paired with sake are Pork Belly Kushiyaki, Texas Poke and Japanese cobbler, all new to the restaurant’s seasonal menu. The dinner will be on Monday, Sept. 29 at 6:30 p.m.