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Tokyo Shift

From whisky highballs to a sake and shochu tasting room: The Bay Area’s craft-beverage scene is turning a little more Japanese.


Pouring sake at Liholiho Yacht Club.

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Highball selection at Pacific Cocktail Haven.

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A wall of shochus at Tsunami Panhandle.

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Umami Mart’s Yoko Kumano and Kayoko Akabori.

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The amazing Toki highball machine at Pacific Cocktail Haven.

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Liholiho Yacht Club’s well-curated sake selection.

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Tsunami Panhandle specializes in both shochu and sake.

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Shinichi Washino’s signature lemon chu-hai at Soba Ichi.

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Soba Ichi patio.

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Den Sake Brewery’s Yoshihiro Sako applies labels to his latest batch.

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Yoshihiro Sako label.

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In the nearly seven years since Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano opened Umami Mart, their stylish Japanese barware and kitchenware store in Oakland, the two have cemented their reputation as consummate tastemakers for all things Japanese. If you want to know what kind of cocktail shaker the most celebrated bartenders in Tokyo are using, or which kitchen tool or tea set to give as a housewarming gift, or what KitKat flavor is the new hotness, these two have never been known to steer a customer wrong.

Akabori and Kumano are also certified experts on Japanese booze and have been selling sake and craft beer at the shop since 2015, later adding whisky and shochu to the inventory as well. When Umami Mart moves to a new location in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood later this year, they’ll double down on that focus by opening a sake and shochu tasting room in the back of the store—a cozy six-seat bar where customers can try a particular sake or shochu, and have the staff talk them through what they’re tasting before they commit to buying the whole bottle.

The new addition comes at a time when Bay Area imbibers are more curious and savvy about Japanese drinking culture than ever before. But there’s still a real need for this kind of down-to-earth education, Akabori says, noting that many of the Bay Area’s wine shops and restaurants do a good job of making wine accessible to novices. But when it comes to sake, for example, that level of personalized discussion remains relatively rare. “Why does it smell really crazy? What did the brewer do in this situation to make it taste this way? What kind of rice did they use? Why is the label so weird? All those things are things we’re interested in,” Kumano explains.

One of Kumano and Akabori’s inspirations is an Osaka bottle shop where customers buy a newspaper, crack open a bottle of sake and a can of sardines, sit down, and start enjoying themselves—right then, right there. Umami Mart aspires to be that kind of supercasual one-stop shop—more clubhouse than bar, Akabori says, which is why they use the term “tasting room,” even though their license allows them to do full pours, not only the tasting pours you get at a brewery or a distillery.

This was always part of the grand vision for Umami Mart, Kumano says, but the timing now seems especially serendipitous. It wasn’t so many years ago that sake rarely made it onto beverage menus outside the context of a sushi restaurant, and only hardcore beer geeks had ever heard of any Japanese brewery besides Asahi. But all of that is changing. As the number of tourists traveling from the U.S. to Japan has roughly tripled since 1990, more Americans are coming back from holiday in Tokyo with a taste for shochu and Japanese-style whisky highballs. Interest in Japan’s smooth, balanced whiskies soared after Yamazaki distillery’s 2013 single-malt sherry cask was named World Whisky of the Year in the 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible—the first time a non-Scotch whisky won the title. And, of course, there’s the burgeoning and continued interest in craft distilling and fermentation, in the Bay Area and beyond.

“[Japan has] been making all of these really meticulous beverages for thousands of years,” Kumano says. “It’s so detail-oriented. People have an appetite for that.” With the Bay Area’s craft beverage scene increasingly looking to Japan, here are five other Japanese drinking trends that have made their way to a bar or restaurant near you.

1. The whisky highball is the perfect drink—thanks, in part, to the science of soda water.
If you walk into a random bar in San Francisco and ask for a whisky highball, you’ll probably get some combination of whisky and soda water served in a tall glass, but, chances are, it’ll bear only a nominal resemblance to the highballs that are near-ubiquitous in Japan, where the drink has been perfected down to an art and a science. “[They’re] how the layperson in Japan relates to whisky,” Kumano says. “Everybody drinks highballs. Your mom drinks highballs; your grandma drinks highballs; I drink highballs.”

The cocktail was popularized in Japan by spirits companies that wanted to encourage whisky consumption among Japanese people, who tend to find it too strong to drink neat. According to Kevin Diedrich, who runs a daily highball happy hour at his Union Square bar, Pacific Cocktail Haven (580 Sutter St.), you can sum up the essence of a Japanese highball in a few words: “supercold, refreshing, effervescent, tons of flavor, low-octane.” It’s a whisky cocktail you can drink like a cold beer.

At Pacific Cocktail Haven, Diedrich serves a basic highball (Suntory Whisky Toki soda water and a twist of lemon), as well as three or four creative variations on the theme—the T and T, for instance, which features reposado tequila, Japanese plum wine and housemade tonic syrup. But all of the highballs benefit from a secret weapon: a Suntory Toki highball machine, which pulls filtered water into a condenser coil that essentially flash-freezes it before adding carbon dioxide. The coldness allows for much stronger carbonation, resulting in soda water with such a vigorous fizz, it’ll make your eyes water when you drink it. Diedrich calls them “angry bubbles.” It’s what makes his highballs so refreshing.      

Don’t want to invest upward of $5,000 to install one of these highball machines? Not to worry. As Kumano puts it, “You can go to any grimy izakaya in Japan, and some old man will make you a highball, and it’s amazing. It doesn’t have to have that machine.”

2. Sake is no longer exclusively the purview of Japanese restaurants.
It used to be that you would mostly see sake on the menu when going out for sushi—and even then maybe only a handful of options, divided—as far as most customers could tell—into categories no more illuminating than “cheap,” “expensive” and “very expensive.” But given the way so many Bay Area fine-dining chefs look to Japan for inspiration, it should come as no surprise that many of the newer restaurants now have dedicated sake programs. At Avery (1552 Fillmore St.), an extravagant tasting menu spot in the Fillmore, Beverage Director Daniel Bromberg is a certified sake sommelier—so, naturally, the restaurant offers a sake pairing option. And bartender Caitlin Midkiff got her sake certification two years ago in order to head up the nascent sake program at Liholiho Yacht Club (871 Sutter St.), the city’s chicest Hawaiian-inspired restaurant, where she keeps a very short but well-curated list of sakes covering a whole gamut of styles—from crisp and refreshing to an umami-laden Yamahai, which, she says, is like the cabernet sauvignon of sakes. It’s also true that she gets a lot of customers who only associate sake with raw fish. But, she says, “I change so many minds all the time."

3. Will 2019 be the year shochu finally catches on?
Even as sake’s profile has risen in America, shochu, a Japanese distilled spirit that’s commonly mistaken for Korean soju, remains relatively unknown—despite the fact that shochu is, by far, the more popular drink in Japan. As Umami Mart’s Akabori puts it, “At the end of the day, if you’re out to have a good time, it’s all about shochu,” which has the added benefit of being generally less expensive than sake. Her hope is that Umami Mart’s new tasting room will help fast-track the mainstreaming of shochu in Northern California—a process that goes back to when Tsunami Panhandle (1306 Fulton St.), the Bay Area’s first shochu bar, opened in 2001. Khaled Dajani, whose Dajani Group operates the bar, says the interest is there, at least among people who have spent time in Japan, a growth that’s reflected in the fact that Tsunami has gone from carrying eight shochus to more than 100. For newbies unsure of shochu, Dajani says it tends to appeal to people who drink vodka straight. A good shochu, he explains, is “like a very well-made vodka,” only smoother.

4. The best chu-hai in the Bay Area—and possibly all of America—is served in West Oakland.
If shochu starts to get traction in America, it only makes sense chu-hais, or shochu highballs, would have their moment as well. After all, the drink is almost as popular as its whisky-based counterpart in Japan, where you can find canned versions in any convenience store. Here in the Bay Area, Shinichi “Washi” Washino is the self-proclaimed chu-hai king. In fact, the former bar manager at Berkeley izakaya Ippuku and current co-owner of West Oakland noodle shop Soba Ichi (2311 Magnolia St.), believes he makes the best chu-hai in the entire U.S., in part because there are still relatively few other places that offer the drink. As it turns out, the basic components of Soba Ichi’s $10 lemon chu-hai are quite simple: cold glass, ice, a squeeze of lemon, shochu and a high-quality soda—Washino recently switched to a Japanese brand.

5. Sake goes local.
There are a quite a few sake breweries in California, but only a handful of independent microbreweries that aren’t outposts of large Japanese sake producers. The newest of these is Den Sake Brewery, where Yoshihiro Sako makes small batches of sake—about 1,000 bottles every two months—out of a small warehouse in West Oakland. Fittingly, Sako is giving his product a bit of a California twist. Part of that involves brewing his sake to be more acidic than most Japanese sakes to better complement the richer local cuisine. Another part has to do with Den Sake’s overall sensibility. Whereas sakes in Japan are brewed so that every batch will taste exactly the same, Sako’s approach, in some ways, fits in better with the Bay Area’s locavoristic craft food and beverage culture: He uses a Sacramento-grown Calhikari sushi rice, which is not traditionally used for sake production, and puts the name of the varietal on the bottle label. He also embraces the idea that each batch he brews might come out slightly different from the one before it—the way wine vintages differ from year to year.



Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco 

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