With all the intense- and necessary- focus on food of late, it was time for a drink. I asked two of my favourite sake ladies to drop in with some samples. Vivian Hatherell from and Gillian Farnsworth from are two of the most well-versed sake agents in the city of Toronto, as well as trusted industry friends. Having worked with sake most of my professional life, returning to sake was a lot like slipping on a pair of jeans from high school and delighted to find that it still fit. It’s the same-old, but a lot more of them out there.
Sake is a rice wine, but is brewed a lot like beer because of the addition of yeast and koji (an enzyme-producing mold). Unlike wine, where the alcohol is produced by fermenting the sugar that is naturally present in the grapes, sake and beer requires that sugar to come by way of converting the starch in the wheat and rice; in sake, that is the job of the koji. Despite most people’s assumptions, sake has phenomenal range in flavour profile- from dank and earthy as topsoil, to as floral and fruity as Alsatian Gewurtztraminer- and I have had many Aha! moments drinking the stuff. I was looking for sake that would work well with our robust approach to the menu. Of the eight varieties of special designation sake, honjozo (which adds distilled alcohol to the basic rice, koji and yeast mix) holds up the best. There is a hardiness to a honjozo that can stand up to grilled meats and the sometimes overwhelming sauces that we can expect from Asian-inspired cuisine. Others, like a junmai daiginjo is much too delicate and will lose itself like a teenager in love; better to be solitary (ie. drank by itself). The Murai Family line of sakes, represented by Metropolitan, are some of the most varied and delicate out in the market, crafted with unparalelled attention to detail. Some of my favourite sakes come from this line, in large part because they are a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to flavour. Also, the Tozai Typhoon, the bestselling sake in its category in Japan, will be our house sake to be poured by the glass.Anybody who has tried sake knows this brand represented by Select Wines: Gekkeikan is to sake what Kikkoman is to soy sauce. If you have ordered sake in a Japanese restaurant, it may well have been a Gekkeikan, the oldest sake house in Japan and first one here in Canada. Although Gekkeikan carries a junmai daiginjo, Horin, which we will be selling by the glass at the restaurant, it is their futsu-grade sake, recognizable by the large green bottle and orange-white label, will be used as the base for most of our sake cocktails.
I will be carrying a full range of sakes by other vendors like Ozawa and Sakagura to raise the stakes in our sake offering, but it’s a good start and a great segue to the sake cocktails my partner and I experimented with today. While our sojus (distilled rice spirit) are being infused overnight with lemongrass and goji berry, we took a stab at some ”signature” cocktails, but signatures, especially when we have been sipping on one too many sakes, can often look like they were scribbled with the wrong hand.
Here were a few that made a good first impression… With the impending deep freeze coming to our city, I thought: why not remind our guests of this with this our “Snowy Passionfruit” concoction? Who needs a hot toddy when there is a blizzard outside the restaurant windows. “Bartender, I’ll have whatever the street’s having.” Actually, it’s a fine blend of Tozai “Snow Maiden” nigori sake, muddled with passionfruit and our “secret” other ingredient, that includes a citrus bitter. This nigori is chewy and dry, so the “secret” other ingredient adds a good balance of light natural sweetness to it. I think you will like this one. While we are on the subject of reminding guests that they will have to pull out the snow shovel when they get home, why not sooth their prematurely aching arms with a bowl of “Frosty”. The base is Gekkeikan sake, shaken with a “secret” ingredient, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Lying in the ”slush” of deliciousness is, of course, Frosty, our lazy mangosteen with the tropical cap on its head, cynically reminding us that we would all rather be in Thailand at the moment. I love mangosteen, not because it has been touted as the next cure-all for just about everything, including in-laws, but because of the not-so-subtle interplay of litchee, melon and ripened banana. It really does work well in this cocktail.
Sake cocktail “philosophy”=simplicity.
Six simple-to-execute signatures, fortified by a shortlist of classics (ie. negroni, manhattan etc.). I promise there will be no ”Litchee Saketinis” on our list. I hope to drag sake cocktails into the 21st century. We will also be carrying some soju cocktails that will use two infusions (which will change bi-weekly or whenever they run out) as the base. These concoctions should be interesting- will keep you posted.
1. A short list, offering all by both glass and bottle.
2. 5oz glass pours.
3. Recognizable varietals and labels.
4. Mark them up only 100%.
Example: Let’s say we purchase a bottle for $20. We will sell the bottle for $40 to our guest. We will sell a 5oz glass for $8.20. There will be no savings incentive to purchase a bottle over glass. Some of my favourite restaurants in the city work this way and I always feel like I can trust the rest of what the proprietor has to offer when their wine list becomes a value-driven proposition. More on the list later.