I used to only order sake occasionally, always at a Japanese restaurant, and always hot. But a recent dinner with sake expert (and chef and artist) Miwa Wang inspired me otherwise.
Miwa worked as a sake retailer for nearly a decade, and she knows sake inside and out. That evening, she described the intricate sake-brewing process to me and our mutual friend, photographer Shelley Eades, over glasses of chilled rice wine, both of which gave me a newfound appreciation for the stuff. So I started picking up a bottle or two here and there, and sipping it on the occasional afternoon or evening, (sometimes but not always with Asparagus Sushi Bowls) enjoying its clean flavor and relatively low alcohol content (well, relative to, say, straight whiskey or gin – not that I drink that in the afternoon, Mom).
Sake has a slightly lactic, funky taste that I’ve grown to enjoy on its own, and not just to wash down sushi. I reckoned that its delicate flavor would pair well with tangy pomelo juice. Pomelos are like giant grapefruits, and their flesh is dense, bright pink, and sweeter than grapefruit. (As a bonus, you can use the skin to make a helmet [a.k.a., Pomelmet] for your cat.) Since pomelos are most often found in Southeast Asian cuisine, I decided to add a bit of lemongrass and fresh ginger to the mix.
I lugged home two giant, yellow orbs the size of my head, sawed one open, and tried to squeeze it on our little plastic juicer. The head of the juicer made nary a dent in the large fruit, so I changed tactics and used my hands to try to squeeze out the juice.
After about ten minutes of strenuous squeezing, I had acquired a measly half cup of juice (not to mention a killer upper-body workout). At that point, I didn’t care how concentrated in color or flavor the juice was, I was never juicing another pomelo until I acquired a set of giant man hands. I’m willing to work fairly hard for a good drink, but not that hard.
So I grabbed a grapefruit out of the fridge and within thirty seconds had enough juice for several drinks. Grapefruit sake cocktails it was.
Since heating ginger and lemongrass alters their flavors, I decided to muddle them with sugar rather than making a simple syrup. (Plus, you get more instant gratification that way.) Muddling helps to extract the flavors, and it also helps the sugar begin to break down and dissolve. (Muddling the fibrous ginger and lemongrass is a bit labor intensive, so if you’re making a large batch of these, do yourself a favor and pulse these ingredients together in a food processor.) In go a bit of meyer lemon and grapefruit juices, and then the sake. Stir, strain, and pour it over ice. (Or for stronger drinks, shake with ice and strain into chilled glasses.)
I like Sho Chiku Bai’s Nama Sake, which is organic and made in Berkeley, and has a smooth, clean flavor that pairs nicely with the delicate ones in this drink. You could also use a high-alcohol sake for more of a kick. I tried a sparkling sake, but the only type available was too sweet for the drink, not as clean-tasting as the Sho Chiku Bai.
In these cocktails, the delicate flavor of the sake comes through clearly. You get a kick of floral spice from the ginger, which softens into tart, floral grapefruit and a hint of exotic lemongrass. The flavors blend together smoothly, and since the drink is made with sake, you can have a glass and still get some work done (as Jay pointed out this afternoon before heading to the bedroom for a nap).
If you can’t find lemongrass, know that the cocktail is good without it, too. If you don’t do alcohol, you could try a virgin version with fizzy water or coconut water in its place.
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Pink Grapefruit, Ginger, and Lemongrass Sake Cocktails
Since citrus can vary in sweetness, feel free tweak this to your taste, adding more lemon or grapefruit if the drink is too sweet, more sugar if you’d like it a bit sweeter. If you don’t have meyer lemons, use 1 tablespoon regular lemon juice, and adjust the sugar if needed. If I were making these for a crowd, I would pulse together the ginger, lemongrass, and sugar in a food processor, then stir it into the citrus juices and sake and chill until ready to serve, whereupon I’d strain the whole thing through a fine-mesh sieve and into a large serving pitcher. I’ve made this with both the bright pink Rio Red grapefruits and also with the lighter, orange-pink Marsh Rubys. While the brighter fruits give the drink a prettier hue, I prefer the more subtle, complex flavor of the paler Marsh Rubys, though either one works just fine. If you want more ginger-lemongrass flavor, let the muddled cocktail steep for 5 minutes, or up to several hours in the fridge, before straining and serving. For a stronger drink, strain the shaken cocktail into chilled glasses with no ice. For a more refreshing drink, add ice and a bit of sparkling water to the glasses.
All ounce measurements here are by volume.
Makes 2 drinks
2 tablespoons packed chopped lemongrass (tips reserved for optional garnish)
1 tablespoon packed chopped ginger root
1 tablespoon organic, blonde cane sugar
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) strained meyer lemon juice (or 1 tablespoon regular lemon juice plus 1 additional tablespoon grapefruit juice)
6 tablespoons strained pink grapefruit juice
1 cup (8 ounces) dry sake (such as Sho Chiku Bai’s Junmai-Shu / Nama Sake)
In a measuring pitcher or jar, vigorously muddle together the lemongrass, ginger, and sugar until the mixture is broken down fairly well, about 30 seconds. Add the lemon juice, muddle a bit longer, then stir in the grapefruit juice and sake. (Optionally let the mixture steep for 5 minutes or up to several hours in the refrigerator for a stronger flavor.) Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve and into a jar or cocktail shaker filled halfway with ice, pressing on the solids to extract all the good stuff. Stir or shake the mixture for 10 seconds to chill, then strain into two wine glasses filled partway with ice. Garnish with a lemongrass tip, if you like, and serve.