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Charleston restaurants swap sake for vodka in this cocktail hack

Sake to me

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I tried my first Bloody Mary on vacation with my family when I was 18 or 19. There's a picture somewhere, buried deep in the archives of Facebook, of my tan, freckled face, lips pursed, eyes sad. I vowed to never sip a Bloody again.

Junction - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Junction

Fast forward eight years and every time I make it out of bed to a boozy brunch, you better believe there's a Bloody accompanying my eggs benny. And yes, I'll probably order a double to start.

I love the pickled veggies, the spicy rim, the tomato mix that feels like a meal in and of itself. Oh, and the vodka. Very into the vodka.

So, when I heard that there were some Charleston restaurants daring to substitute vodka with sake, I was pretty skeptical. I hadn't had the fermented rice drink since some less than auspicious college evenings screaming "sake, sake, sake, BOMB!" Why would anyone replace Svedka with sake?

Well, quite simply, you don't need a liquor license — therein lies its appeal. Restaurants sans liquor licenses can serve sake along with beer and wine in lieu of hard alcohol. While vodka has an average ABV of around 40 percent, sake's average ABV is between 15 and 16 percent, making it safe to sell. Before you booze hounds start having a conniption, keep in mind that sake has the highest alcohol content of any fermented bev ­— i.e. beer, cider, and wine, with beer's ABV average sitting between 3 and 7 percent and wine's average between 12 and 15 percent.

5 Loaves Cafe - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • 5 Loaves Cafe

According to Eater's "Sake Isn't a Rice Wine, and Four Other Myths Dispelled" article, sake is made when "rice starch is converted to sugar then that sugar is converted to alcohol by yeast. In essence, this makes the sake production process actually more closely related to beer than wine. However, the way that sake is produced is totally unique in the world of alcoholic beverages."

Like all fermented beverages, there are different classifications for sake. Made with water, rice, koji (the "miracle mold"), and yeast, sake ranges from top grade to middle grade to table sake depending on the way the rice is milled. Like vodka, though, when thrown into a well-garnished Bloody, quality is all relative.

I tried three different sake Bloody variations around town: Junction Kitchen and Provisions in North Charleston, Five Loaves downtown, and Sunrise Bistro on Johns Island. All of the Bloodys were under seven dollars, refreshing, and pretty tasty. Best part? I didn't even miss the vodka.

After trying these Bloodys all hours of the day, I realized that there really is nothing like a Bloody paired with breakfast food. Junction Kitchen and Provisions serves three variations of Bloodys, along with breakfast all day — an immediate win-win. While Junction can serve vodka Bloodys Mon-Sat., they don't carry a Sunday liquor license. Owner Kimana Littleflower says that the restaurant started to offer sake Bloodys in March 2015 — based on a suggestion from a Breakthru Bev rep — to fill that boozy tomato niche on Sundays.

Triangle - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Triangle

The Junction's natural blonde Bloody with sake and the fat and juicy Bloody with sake are each $5.50, and the half and half Bloody with sake is $5. The vodka iterations are all about a dollar more. We tried the half and half and it went down easy. Next time we may tell them light ice, as it was bordering on "watered down" but that may just have been our taste buds yearning for the bite of vodka.

Five Loaves, a cozy eatery known for healthy lunch and dinner options and half off wine nights, may not seem like the ideal spot to try a spin on a classic cocktail. But this was hands down my favorite sake Bloody. Heavy handed with the sake, light-handed with the mix, garnished with lemon, lime, and fresh cracked pepper, this $5 Bloody felt like the most legit effort, and it's available year-round (and any time of the day, we found) at the downtown location. GlowFisch Hospitality Group director of operations Lauren Del Duca says that the Bloodys are big sellers during Sunday brunch, and, without a liquor license (the other Five Loaves locations do not offer sake Bloodys as they do have liquor licenses) it was their way of "being able to still offer an alcholic Bloody Mary."

Sunrise Bistro on Johns Island is a locals favorite, always bustling Sunday mornings with families and perhaps the friendliest waitstaff around. Sunrise serves up the "Bloody Ninja" in a pint glass garnished with fresh basil leaves for $7. Server Ally Wilson says they've only recently added the Bloody to the menu. "We didn't want the hassle of getting a liquor license," says Wilson, "or the crowd that [a liquor license] sometimes brings in, and we're a lunch spot, so it just made sense." Wilson says that while 30 percent of patrons don't like the sake version, it's been well-received by Bloody seekers. With brunch options galore and a bright, busy vibe, this may be the best place to enjoy a Bloody, no matter what it's mixed with.

Even after my succesful sake sips, I will certainly not stop frequenting restaurants with vodka Bloodys. There's something about getting an easy Sunday buzz ... well, you kind of need hard alcohol to achieve that warm, fuzzy feeling. But if you're craving a Bloody and don't need a midday hangover? Sake Bloodys served at beloved local eateries with lower alcohol content, plus lower price points, are a good bet. As far as restaurant hacks go, color us convinced.

Sake for sake's sake

While some area restaurants value sake for its liquor license dodging appeal, others, like popular contemporary Japanese spot O-Ku, value sake for sake's sake. O-Ku bar manager Allison Radecker says she came up with her spicy, light, nuanced sake Bloody Mary last year for post Bridge Run cocktail seekers who craved sushi along with the quintessential brunch bev.

To create her version of a Bloody, Radecker uses soju — a clear, higher alcohol spirit distilled from barley — to give her drink an extra kick (the ABV can range, on average, between 20 and 24 percent). She then adds O-Ku's house sake, plus locally made mixer Natural Blonde Bloody Mary Mix. Radecker says the lightness of Natural Blonde is perfect for sake, which is such a delicate base, compared to the heartiness of vodka. For heat, she muddles Thai chilis and rims the glass with an Asian seven spice blend, and then tops it all off with two perfectly red Thai chilis, lime, and cucumber. While Radecker says the $11 sake-based Bloody is always available, the requests are pretty rare. For newly initiated sake seekers, we say: order up.

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