Tuesday, May 21, 2024

How to Use Wasabi in Cocktails for Savory, Spicy Flavor

The flavor of wasabi is unmistakable—savory, bright and pungent, with a kick of heat. While it’s most commonly used as an accent to sushi, in this era of spicy cocktails, bartenders are looking to the root to add a warming dimension to everything from cachaça coladas to gin Alexanders.

Nico de Soto, who runs bars Danico in Paris and Mace in New York, estimates that he’s used the ingredient in a dozen cocktails. At Danico, he makes a wasabi distillate for clarified cocktails by infusing vodka with grated fresh wasabi and distilling it in a rotovap flask. Meanwhile, at Mace, the Wasabi + Cilantro is a Miami Vice in which the Strawberry Daiquiri part is made with wasabi-infused rum. There’s a reason these drinks are milk-washed and frozen: De Soto notes a challenge to working with the ingredient—“Wasabi can get a certain bitterness that’s hard to get rid of”—which is why he combines it with soy milk, or uses freezing as a tactic to help mitigate overly strong, spicy flavors. 

At Birds of Paradise in Boston, director of bar operations Will Isaza tackles the challenging flavor by grating the root, blending it into a paste and mixing it into the house coconut cordial. His bar creates travel-inspired drinks that link two destinations through their ingredients; the Rio to Tokyo is a savory Piña Colada made with the wasabi-coconut cordial, cachaça, amontillado sherry, miso, pineapple juice and shiso. Isaza approaches wasabi from a culinary perspective: “When you have it with sushi, you don’t want it to overpower the fish, you want to accentuate the fish,” Isaza says. “It’s the same concept here. You just need a little dab to amplify the ingredients in the drink.”

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While wasabi makes these fruit-forward cocktails pop, it also adds an accent to creamier dessert-style drinks. At Singapore’s Bar Kakure, bar manager Kazuhiro Chii uses wasabi in the Yamaoroshi, his take on the Alexander. Made with wasabi-infused gin, white cacao liqueur, cream and freshly grated wasabi, the cocktail “offers a spicy kick that complements the otherwise smooth and rich flavors,” he says. He sources the root from Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture, which is known for its wasabi, then uses it two ways. First, to make the infused gin, he dehydrates it, a process that allows him to “capture the essence without the harshness and bitterness fresh wasabi might impart.” Then he adds a teaspoon of freshly grated wasabi when shaking the cocktail to bring in some of those notes. “What captivates me is the harmony between sweetness and the piquant kick in cocktails,” he says. 

But sourcing fresh wasabi can be challenging—and expensive. De Soto occasionally opts for horseradish as a substitute, while Isaza says that frozen prepared wasabi is an affordable option. And at Portland, Maine’s Izakaya Minato, former bar manager Lucie Anderson tapped powdered wasabi to make a syrup for her cocktail, Wasabi Island. Her preferred powder for the drink, the same one that Izakaya Minato’s chef uses on sashimi, is Kinjirushi Kona with Wasabits (the “bits” give texture to the powder), which has “a clear, bright flavor.”

Anderson’s Wasabi Island, made with wasabi-honey syrup, tequila, and pineapple and lemon juices, has become a year-round staple at the restaurant. “This is one of those sinus-clearing beverages,” she says. And the wasabi-honey syrup is capable of adding sweet and savory notes to other drinks, according to Anderson, such as a vodka, mezcal or shochu mule. 

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According to de Soto, wasabi’s uses in drinks are endless. “You can make wasabi oil by blending [the root] with oil and dropping it on top of cocktails,” de Soto suggests. “You can buy wasabi salt and rim the glass for a Margarita.” He also notes that the root’s flavor works well with any spirit, light or dark: “Wasabi goes with everything.”

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