The 2 Spirits To Replace With Sake For Punchier Cocktails

In the Western world, we generally know sake as a straight-shot drink served warm and strong in Japanese restaurants. Though it's tempting to keep sake in that cute little cup and treat it like a standalone anomaly, it holds much broader possibilities in the ever-evolving world of craft cocktails. 

Sake as a cocktail ingredient could be called a "sleeper," which Collins Dictionary describes as something previously unnoticed that becomes unexpectedly successful. Maybe it's time for the humble Japanese drink to wake up and smell its rosy potential.

Sake is made from rice, not fruits, and it's brewed rather than fermented or distilled. That means it's not a spirit nor a wine, though many people incorrectly describe sake as a "rice wine," states the Martha Stewart website. The primary ingredients, in addition to rice, are water, yeast, and koji mold, and many varieties of sake exist, just as with wines and whiskeys.

The Sake Association lists 14 acknowledged styles of sake, with varying flavor profiles reflecting what Eat-Japan calls the five "go-mi" flavors of sweetness, bitterness, tartness, dryness, and acidity. This means endless opportunities for creating new cocktails or replacing standard spirits in well-known existing ones.

Industry professionals often advocate substituting two specific spirits with sake for punchier cocktail tastes and textures. Both are generally clear, like sake, but each is distilled rather than brewed.

Move over, gin and vodka

Though a long-time favorite in cocktail creations, gin and vodka are no longer the only neutral-grain spirit options for cocktail mixing. Sake is coming into its own, with a well-deserved spotlight given by industry professionals such as Weston Konishi from the Sake Brewers Association of North America and Kira Webster, beverage director from Indo, an Asian fusion restaurant (via Martha Stewart). 

Both highlight sake as an easy, low-ABV substitute for gin and vodka in mixed drinks. Webster specifically recommends the Daiginjo sake variety instead of gin for an Aviation cocktail, which brings out umami flavors over herbal ones from gin.  

SAKEYOI Hong Kong offers ideas for enriching old-time favorites such as the classic gin- or vodka-based martini. In this case, the name gets a perky lift to "Saketini," but the gin or vodka doesn't entirely get the boot. Vermouth does. The SAKEYOI version uses half gin, vodka, or shochu and half sake — preferably a robust selection such as junmai or honjozo. 

Likewise, a sake cocktail version of the bitter Negroni cocktail replaces gin with sake but keeps the vermouth. And the Bloody Mary? It becomes a Ginza Mary, using half sake and half vodka and ditching the Worcester sauce for soy sauce, chili sauce, or Tabasco.

Though sake is an easy replacement for gin- and vodka-heavy cocktails, it works well in countless other exotic creations. offers seven creative experiments, including the Fields of Travel cocktail with green Chartreuse, melon bitters, and zucchini water, zapped at the end with sake.