It was 7:30am and I was squinting under a neon light in a 24-hour store in one of the grottiest areas of Shinjuku, holding a giant bottle of peach liqueur. It was the morning of my 32nd birthday and I vaguely wondered whether to question my life choices. Even by the standard of my usual Tokyo Survival Channel adventures, this was a little early… and I didn’t even have the excuse of still drinking from the night before.
I tried to stifle a yawn as I eyed up a bottle of gin. The truth is I know nothing about gin. Or peach liqueur. Or any of the other dubious and some worryingly fluorescent cocktail ingredients that were rolling around merrily in my basket. I only know about sake.
“Oh yeah?” said the TSC team. “You think you know how to drink sake?”
But that wasn’t all…we were to make these sake cocktails at sake brewery in Tokyo for a sake brewer… who would be the judge.
If making a cocktail for a professional who has spent his or her life pouring their sweat and soul into crafting the perfect beverage doesn’t sound terrifying enough, there are a couple of things about sake you should know:
Sake is made primarily of rice and water and has a very delicate flavour, which is difficult to preserve when mixing.
Most sake are around 15–17% alcohol, which is not very strong when you consider cocktail mixers.
But most importantly of all:
- Mixing sake with other things is considered sacrilege by some traditionalists.
I guessed I would probably be needing a drink.
Searching for a sake brewery in Tokyo
When people think of “sake” and “Tokyo”, they might think of shiny, stylish sake bars where you can sample hundreds of kinds from all around Japan. But Tokyo actually has nine sake breweries within its borders, with four located among the forested hills out west.
That’s the case for Ozawa Sake Brewery, who kindly agreed to host our challenge. It is located in the region of Sawai (literally “water well”), which is what inspired the name of its famous brand Sawanoi. Overlooking the Tama river with a terrace where you can sample their brews and feel like life is awesome, they offer tours of their brewery in Japanese and English where you can learn all about sake and their brand. They have an astounding array of sake, shave one several awards, and they also make delicious, sweet umeshu (plum liqueur).
Founded in 1702, Ozawa Brewery is a staggering 318 years old. I vaguely wondered just how many minutes—or even seconds—it would take for me to commit heresy and desecrate their craft.
Lugging camera equipment and far too many dubiously flavoured drinks, we reached Ozawa Brewery within an hour and a half from Shinjuku station. We were greeted by Shinnosuke Yoshizaki, from their Planning and Design Section, who immediately launched into a tour.
As to be expected, the brewery draws on the abundant mountain spring water that surrounds it. Their trademark is a rather cute freshwater crab (sawagani) which can only survive in fresh, pristine water – a testament to the quality of the water they use. I immediately ask a crucial question: can you eat it?
“Freshwater crab makes great karaage,’ Yoshizaki replied, ‘but we don’t talk about eating it so much because it’s our trademark.”
I contemplated what I was about to do to their precious sake and felt another wave of shame.
The tour took us inside the main building that they call the Genrokugura, vast and dimly lit to avoid damaging sake with light. Dating from the Genroku era (dates), incredibly it is constructed only using interlocking wood instead of nails. The mud-walled structure and airy, double-layered roof maintains a perfect temperature—summer temperatures top 35°C, but it never gets warmer than 25°C, and never falls below 5°C in the winter.
Our route led us past giant tanks where the sake ferments for about a month before being filtered and bottled. Each holds 8,000 litres – enough to produce 4,500 1.8 litre bottles known as isshobin.
“If one person drank one glass (180ml) of sake per day, it would take them 123 years,” Yoshizaki informed us.
“But there is a saying that sake is equal to 100 medicines. In other words, it has health benefits. Two glasses a day keeps the doctor away. If you follow this advice, you could drink a whole tank in just over 60 years.”
As a newly-turned and highly concerned 32-year-old, I was not going to question this advice. I was 100% prepared to give it a try (in fact, I am drinking as I write this report… for health reasons) .
Let the challenge begin
In a room lined with tables, Tokyo Survival Channel Editor and All-around Evil Mastermind Hiro explained the task that awaited us. Chris and I each had to create a cocktail each using Sawanoi Tokubetsu Junmai.
Yoshizaki would judge us on three criteria:
Taste (40 points) – How well balanced are the flavours? Does the cocktail enhance?
Appearance (30 points) – How well presented is the drink? Does it look appealing?
Story (30 points) – Does the sake have a suitable or clever name? What was the inspiration behind the recipe?
Yoshizaki looked solemn as he accepted his role. I wondered whether the “Planning and Design” section of Ozawa Brewery had contingency plans for eccentric Brits brandishing cheap bottles of other booze.
“I am very much looking forward to sake cocktails,” Yoshizaki said. “But, as a brewer, I will look at how you are using sake and judge you harshly.”
No pressure then.
Chris was up first and produced to my horror a can of Red Bull. I could hear my health-conscious mother screeching in my head, “There’s a reason why it’s banned in some countries!” But Red Bull was originally inspired by a Thai drink so why not add it to some centuries-old sake for a friendly pan-Asian mix? Maybe it’ll just balance out the health benefits.
Chris liberally poured it into the cocktail mixer, then added Ramune, a Japanese lemonade-like drink. He added some anzu (Japanese apricot) liquer, then reached for some peppermint liqueur before making a U-turn and pouring in “wild berry tonic.”
“Yoshizaki san is looking very worried over there,” said Chris with a wry smile.
And it was true. Yoshizakwa seemed to be frozen in place, his face an immutable mask as the sacrilegious scene unfolded before him.
In all honesty, I think we were all looking worried by this point. Chris’ recipe reminded me of a child’s version of cooking in which they grab anything and everything at hand. I had a flashback to myself, age 4, when I poured dried lentils and water into a shoebox and proudly showed my mother my stew.
Chris shook the cocktail up, overly exciting the carbonated drink and drenching the table. Fortunately, we had abandoned any pretence of professionalism from the moment we had got our ingredients out our bags.
“I call it Komorebi,” said Chris offering his cocktail to Yoshizaki, “which means ‘dappled sunlight through the trees.’”
He proceeded to launch into a poetic explanation as to how the fruity aroma gave the cocktail a delightful freshness but the ricey notes of the sake came through at the last moment, like a glimpse of sunlight in the trees.
Translating that into British English, I believe we can probably summarise it as, “what a pretentious twat.” However, I was secretly impressed. It was a beautiful backstory and I was by no means confident in my recipe… because I had no recipe.
Yoshizaki raised the glass and noted the fruity aroma with a smile. “It is quite sweet. But yes, the sake flavour does come through a little at the end,” he said, before solemnly scribbling notes.
Next, it was my turn. I opened my dawn purchase of peach liqueur. It was thick and gloopy, containing 50% actual peach and 50% despair. I poured it into the mixer with a fixed smile. “Nice and thick. And it’s peach season at the moment,” I announced brightly, before adding copious amounts of sake.
I consulted a selection of teas I had brought along and discovered, to my dismay, they all contained sugar except for the oolong. No matter. The important thing was to look like I knew what I was doing, I reassured myself. Somehow, I felt like I should have learned this lesson before my 32nd birthday but I guess it’s never too late.
“I don’t want the cocktail to be too sweet and I thought it would be nice to add a Japanese ingredient, so I have some tea.”
A couple of drops of the mint liqueur and I shook the cocktail up, also spilling an embarrassing amount. I unceremoniously wiped my hands on my jeans and presented my cocktail as a “Breezy Peach.” It’s fresh and fruity, I said in an unnaturally high voice, perfect for the summer and with the mint giving that fresh breeze.
Yoshizaki took a sip and I held my breath. Then, he looked directly at me with an OK sign. “It’s refreshing and delicious,” he smiled.
I grinned with relief. I was suddenly pretty confident that I had the competition in the bag… and beating my sake teacher at something sake-related was going to feel good.
But there was another lesson that I probably should have learned already: one should never speak too soon.
Wildcard ingredients—the challenge just got wilder
“Just one moment…” said Hiro. “There’s another challenge.”
As if he were a magician, he dramatically lifted a cloth to reveal two additional ingredients – lemon juice and a soft drink called Calpis.
For those unfamiliar with Calpis, it is a thick, milky soft drink which is pronounced almost entirely the same as “cow piss.”
I stared at the bottles and asked Yoshizaki what he thought. For a split second, his composure broke, his eyes widened and the corners of his mouth twitched up into a grimace of horror. Then he caught himself. “I can’t imagine it,” he replied uneasily.
Me neither, Yoshizaki-san, me neither.
The rules were set: Chris and I were to use one or both. I looked at Chris and he looked at me, and we knew the real challenge was on: we grabbed the Calpis.
This time, we were allowed to select a different sake. We chose the sake Genroku, as it was brewed using the traditional kimoto method, and so we hoped it would have enough lactic notes and enough umami to stand up to the potentially overpowering Calpis. I mixed the two, adding oolong tea for bitterness and balance. Then Chris and I struck upon the same idea at the same time: adding some mint liqueur. I took a swig and failed to hide my growing concern from Yoshizaki, who was watching in disbelief.
Something was still lacking. And then a capsule of fluorescent liquid caught my eye. “Pink ‘n Peachy” Peach Schnapps & Cranberry Liqueur.
We were already so far down the road into sin that there was no return. I ripped off the classy foil lid and tipped it all in.
Now, it was time for the story and an even wider smile.
“Reflecting its beautiful orange colour and the end of our time here at the brewery, we present the Sawanoi Sunset. It’s the perfect drink for a summer evening,” I beamed.
Yoshizaki took a sip and his eyebrows shot up.
Yoshizaki shuffled his notes. It was the moment we had been waiting for.
Third place: Chris with 80 points for Komorebi.
Second place: Phoebe, with 82 points for Breezy Peach.
First place: Chris & Phoebe, Sippon, with Sawanoi Sunset.
Yoshizaki seemed genuinely excited to give his tasting notes.
“Our Genroku sake is a very unique sake. Being a kimoto, it has a strong lactic flavour and that matches the Calpis well. It brought out the umami of the sake. And from the colour… I can really picture a sunset. 90 points!”
Considering that the marks were out of 100 and these were cocktails made from eclectic ingredients bought at a discount store, I strongly suspected that Yoshizaki san had not judged us that harshly.
But the most amazing thing was that we proved sake could be used successfully as a cocktail mixer, despite clearly being two of the world’s lousiest cocktail makers. What’s more, we had changed the mind of a brewer at an award-winning, centuries-old sake brewery.
“Personally I hadn’t really mixed sake with anything else up until now,” said Yoshizaki, “So today was a new discovery. Different sake have a lot of different characteristics, so I think if you experiment, you will discover a lot of cocktails that match. I would consider experimenting a little in the future.”
Many people, even in Japan, find sake a bit of a mystery and don’t fully appreciate just how varied its flavours can be and just how delicious it can be paired with food.
But there is a movement towards experimenting with sake and exploring its potential. Even sake brewers themselves are trying new things, like adding sake to ice-cream.
We had demonstrated that sake cocktails can be a delicious and a fun way to enjoy the drink, which can only help to create more sake fans and general merriness around the world. Overall, I felt this was not a bad achievement for my 32nd birthday.
Riding off into a Sawanoi
If this were a movie, this would be the part where we headed to the river, enjoyed our sake prize with our beautiful bento lunchboxes, perhaps taking a refreshing dip to cool off before watching the sunset.
But this is real life and the weather had other ideas. A storm with apocalyptic ambitions doused us in torrential rain and forked lightning stabbed the surrounding mountains.
Maybe the gods were angry; maybe we had committed sake sacrilege after all.
The trains stopped; there was no way home. And so I spent 2 hours of my birthday, sitting on the platform of Sawai Station, soaking wet, eating a slightly squashed lunchbox off the floor. Fortunately, I was in good company and—best of all—we had plenty of sake.
I might be getting old but I feel like some things never change. Life is always simultaneously a challenge and an adventure.
Sawanoi Sunset Recipe
Sawanoi Genroku-shu – a very generous amount
Calpis – a cautious amount
Oolong tea – enough to balance the sweetness of the Calpis
Peach Schnapps & cranberry liqueur: one fluorescent capsule
Peppermint liqueur: roughly three drops (but substitute with fresh mint if you can)
Pour everything in the mixer.
Adjust to taste.
Serve and sip!