Cocktails aren’t usually a go-to for sushi night. Sake is the traditional accompaniment for a number of reasons—including its lower ABV and relatively mild flavor—but that doesn’t mean you can’t pair your usual order of salmon sashimi and spicy tuna with a mixed drink.
Rick Zouad, beverage and service director at Sushi Seki, says cocktails are often difficult to pair with sushi because many tend to be too sweet. “Sweetness in cocktails doesn’t match with the sushi,” Zouad says. “If something is too sweet it’s just totally going to kill the flavor of the fish and I don’t recommend that at all.” So maybe skip the Piña Colada.
But Zouad does have a few recommendations for ingredients that make cocktails more sushi-friendly. Here, he shares tips on picking drinks that will complement your favorite sushi orders.
“Sushi is basically a combination of a protein that is rich in fat oils and rice with rice vinegar, so you really need something with high acid that will come through,” says Zouad. He recommends cocktails that contain ingredients like citrus and sherry: “Sherry goes very well with sushi,” he says. “The acidity level really breaks through the fat and brings out the sweetness of the fish.”
Instead of ordering a sweet or bitter drink that contrasts with the fish, Zouad says it’s best to use the fish’s flavors as a guide instead. Complement an umami bomb sushi dish with an umami bomb cocktail. At Sushi Seki, Zouad says, they use ingredients like rice vinegar, salt and clamato to mirror the flavors in certain dishes.
Margarita (with a salted rim)
Cocktails Made With Japanese Ingredients
If you’re out at a sushi restaurant that has a cocktail menu, Zouad says it’s a “safe approach” to choose a cocktail that uses Japanese ingredients like yuzu, which, he says, “goes well with anything” and ginger, which, like the pickled ginger on the side of your sushi platter, serves as a palate cleanser. Shiso is another great ingredient to keep an eye out for, which Sushi Seki uses in place of herbs like mint.
Shishito Pepper Caipirinha
Whiskey and Rum Cocktails With Mackerel
“Whiskey is aged in barrels so it has a smokiness,” says Zouad. “It’s super concentrated, so I would see it working more with fish in the mackerel family. That kick it has, the alcohol, once you eat the fish after the whiskey, it’s going to bring out the sweeter flavors of the fish.” He adds that he is most likely to reach for a Japanese whisky and that rum also works well with mackerel for the same reasons.
Gin Cocktails With Tuna, Salmon, Shellfish and Clams
Zouad says the herbaceous flavors of gin pair very well with tuna and salmon—and even clams. His favorite is Hendrick’s, which has a cucumber-forward flavor that works well with everything from super fatty salmon and tuna to whitefish and beyond.
Gin & Tonic
Southside (with shiso instead of mint)
Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails With Shrimp and Oysters
“What is unique about mezcal is the smokiness and those herbaceous notes,” he says. “It really elevates the flavor of the sushi and works with items like fried oyster sushi or shrimp. The beauty of mezcal is you have that acidic taste, a little bit of crispness and smokiness, but also you have a little bit more depth. The acidity level in mezcal cocktails is also a bit higher [because mezcal can support mixing with more citrus].”
If All Else Fails, Stick With Champagne and Vodka
One of the best ways to ensure you’ll end up with a cocktail that makes your sushi taste better is by sticking with a trusty, neutral base spirit like vodka. Zouad says vodka “goes with every type of sushi.” One of his favorites is Ao Vodka, a Japanese brand that is distilled from rice and has an extra-smooth flavor. “If you want to just make something stirred, like a Martini, you can add flavors of myoga ginger or ginger beer. It’s very refreshing and it will cut through the sushi.”
Zouad says another great go-to pairing for sushi is Champagne. “It’s a little richer and little more sultry [than other wines],” he says. Opt for a Brut or something dry so you don’t run the risk of competing with the flavor of your sushi. In the end, he says, it’s all about finding a balanced drink that doesn’t overpower your palate or the fish.