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Sake Sommelier

Sake and The Limitless World of Cocktails

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Mr. Yamamoto won second place in the Marie Brizard Cocktail Competition
back in 2006, and his unique cocktails have been written up
in many major cocktail and food magazines including Cocktail Times and Food Arts.

With some people, especially the more talented ones, their personality and demeanor reflects vividly into their creations. This is very much the case with Mr. Gen Yamamoto’s cocktails. He is the new mixologist at Soba Totto who is creating unusual cocktails using vegetables and fruits with Zen-like sensitivity and simplicity that is hard to overlook. We asked him how he comes up with so many amazing ideas, especially using Japanese beverages like sake and shochu.

Do you find using sake and shochu more difficult or easier than other beverages to make cocktails with?
Neither really. All shochu and sake are different. Some have very strong characteristics, and it can be hard to make a cocktail with them, but at the same time, if you can find something that can work with those characteristics, then you have something very special.

How would you describe your style?
I would say I’m a minimalist. I don’t like jumbling too many ingredients into one thing. I like creating balance using the bare minimum.

What are some of the popular cocktails here that incorporate either sake or shochu?
Torikai Grapefruits with candied grapefruit peel (made by Mr. Yamamoto himself) is pretty popular. I decided to use the umami and the aroma of the Torikai, a rice based shochu, with the flavors of an entire grapefruit that’s in season, including the bitterness and aroma of the peel. The other one that is popular, particularly with women, is Hot Sake Strawberry Whipped Cream. I matched the fruitiness of the Dassai sake with strawberry because the sake itself has a little hint of strawberry. That’s why it works so nicely. I wouldn’t try it with a different sake though. It’s important for me to use the potential of the beverage to its fullest by not masking its uniqueness but by finding combinations that would enhance it. Otherwise there is no point in using a specific kind of shochu or sake for the cocktail. The other one that is really popular is Daikon Radish made with daikon and Shiro which is a rice based shochu.

How did you come up with such unique ideas?
At first when I just started, I studied all the classic drinks and imitated other people’s recipes, but gradually I realized I really liked the idea of cocktails that are made with fresh ingredients. I’ve always had interest in food too, so I like the idea of making drinks not just with drinks. None of the original cocktails I created actually came out of the intention to make original drinks. They sort of just happen. Something sparked in my head, I went with it, and it worked.

What are the trends you see in the cocktail world today?
I think that joints that resemble the old speak-easies are in style now, as well as the classic drinks these places serve. Like fashion, I think the cocktail world is going retro, too. And I think people really like the idea of going to these hidden places. On the flip side of that, futuristic cocktails, or I call them “molecular” cocktails, are also very popular.

What has changed in the five years you’ve been working in the US as a bartender?
I think that people are a lot more knowledgeable now with drinks in general. I can talk to customers about drinks in ways it was never possible before, which makes it more interesting for me too. For example, when a customer understands the reasoning behind why I mixed a certain drink with certain ingredients without me telling them, it makes me really happy because it feels as if we are on the same frequency or something. Especially because the tastes are so subtle and it takes a lot of sensitivity to create it, so it’s great when people can tell. When a customer comments, for example, that the daikon cocktail made with the rice based shochu is better than having the daikon raddish or the shochu alone, there is no greater feeling.  I believe that if you are going to mix something together, there has to be a meaning in doing so.

What suggestions do you have for sake beginners to learn more about sake?
I’d say find a bartender or a liquor shop you can trust.  That’s probably the easiest way to get introduced to all the types of different sakes available, as well as finding ones that suit your palate.

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Soba Totto
211 E. 43rd St. (bet. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
New York, NY 10017
TEL: 212-557-8200