Until a few years ago, ordering a cocktail crafted with an Asian-made spirit would almost always get you a god-awful fruit-flavored soju martini or a sake bomb devoid of creativity. But with a variety of Asian spirits gaining popularity with American drinkers, creative bartenders are looking to the East for mixological inspiration. Here’s a guide to some major categories, plus advice and recipes from the experts who are breaking new ground.
Although Chinese baijiu is the most-consumed spirit in the world, bartenders in the U.S. have only just begun to explore its funky, savory, chocolaty, mushroomy (yes, mushroomy) cocktail possibilities. At New York’s Lumos, America’s first baijiu bar, owner Orson Salicetti likes to pair it with date, apricot, pineapple, chili pepper, sesame and other complex flavors. Salicetti’s Fujian martini infuses the spirit with lemongrass and mixes it with ginger liqueur, lemon and lychee for a sweet-sour-spicy beverage that’s a gentle introduction to the world of baijiu.
• 1½ oz. lemongrass-infused baijiu (add one bunch lemongrass, peeled and chopped, to 750 ml. baijiu; strain and rebottle after six days)
• 1¾ oz. lychee juice (puree canned lychee fruit; double-strain to obtain juice)
• ¾ oz. Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur
• ¾ oz. fresh lemon juice.
Add all ingredients to shaker and fill with ice. Shake, strain into coupe glass and garnish with slice of lemongrass.
Improved Shochu Cocktail
Shochu is a clear Japanese spirit that can be distilled from a wide variety of bases (usually rice, barley or sweet potatoes), and it’s typically bottled at the fairly low strength of 25 percent alcohol (even lower for soju, shochu’s Korean counterpart). “Shochu tastes similar to vodka if it’s distilled from barley. If distilled from sweet potatoes, it almost tastes like rhum agricole,” says Kenta Goto, whose eponymous Bar Goto in New York embraces Japanese cocktail ingredients from shochu to the milk-based soft drink Calpico. Goto likes to add “a small portion of a higher-proof spirit to give a backbone”—as he does in his improved shochu cocktail.
• 2 oz. shochu such as Mizunomai
• 2 tsp. barrel-aged gin such as Berkshire Mountain Distillers Ethereal gin
• 1½ tsp. sugarcane syrup
• 1 dash Kiuchi No Shizuku (spirit distilled from Japanese white ale).
Add all ingredients to mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, then strain into masu (wooden sake box) or rocks glass.
Licking Our Wounds
At Reserve 101 in Houston, co-owner Mike Raymond has assembled Texas’s best whiskey selection, including a dozen Japanese whiskeys representing just about every bottling available in the country. When it comes to making a cocktail, Raymond says, “you don’t want anything overpowering the whiskey”—which is why a highball is the right way to go. With spiced sherry syrup and tonic that complement the Hibiki Japanese Harmony whiskey, Raymond’s licking our wounds is one such drink.
•1½ oz. Hibiki Japanese Harmony whiskey
• ½ oz. oloroso syrup (equal parts simple syrup and oloroso sherry simmered with 1 tsp. cloves and 1 tsp. peppercorns for 10 minutes, then strained)
• ¼ oz. fresh lime juice
• 2 dashes lavender bitters
• Tonic water
• Mint sprig
Add all ingredients except tonic water and mint to highball glass filled with ice. Top with tonic and stir briefly. Garnish with mint sprig.
Sake is, of course, Japanese rice wine, but if you think of it only as a warm shot downed with cheap sushi, you haven’t had the good stuff. “I tend to think of sakes as playing the role of a vermouth or a liqueur in a cocktail recipe,” says Martha Chong, bartender at Camino in Oakland, California. She has developed cocktails for northern California sake breweries Sequoia Sake Company and Takara Sake USA, as well as Umami Mart, an Oakland sake and bar-tool shop. Two of Chong’s favorite types of sake to use in cocktails are genshu, which isn’t diluted before bottling and has a higher alcohol content, and nigori, an unfiltered sake that’s cloudy in color, quite sweet and very dense. Her cocktail, the western, uses a genshu, sake, spicy rye whiskey and a splash of génépy,, a liqueur flavored with botanicals found in the Alps.
•2 oz. Sequoia genshu sake Directions Add all ingredients to rocks glass filled with a single large ice cube. Stir to combine.
• ½ oz. rye whiskey
• 1 tsp. génépy.
Add all ingredients to rocks glass filled with a single large ice cube. Stir to combine.