Soft sell

Your new place is all set to open but there’s one hitch and it’s a big one: you can’t get a full liquor license. That’s not stopping some creative operators.

The good news is that a beer and wine license is easier to obtain and a bit cheaper than a full liquor license—and you can create crowd-pleasing cocktails without using hard liquor. Champagne cocktails like the Mimosa and Bellini add sparkle to any drink list. The variations are endless: top off a glass of muddled fruit, fruit puree, juice or flavored syrup with Champagne, cava, sekt or an American sparkler. There’s a long tradition of mixed beer drinks, too, like the Black Velvet (beer and Champagne), the Snakebite (beer and cider), and the Shandygaff (beer and lemonade). A Mexican tradition called cerveza preparada, a.k.a. the Michelada, is currently hot in Latin restaurants; lagers are accented with various additions of lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, tomato juice or hot sauce. Served in a salt-rimmed glass and marketed as “cocktails,” these command a higher premium than just a plain beer.

The trendiest solution is the saketini, the sake-based cocktails that are popping up everywhere, not just in Asian eateries. Sake is on the radar of many American consumers, and sake-tinis may be the perfect introduction. With an alcohol content of 14 to 18 percent, the fermented rice beverage falls under a beer and wine license in most states.

“I’ve created sake mojitos, sakaritas, all kinds of drinks,” says Chris Johnson, owner of Bao Noodles in New York City, a neighborhood eatery serving Vietnamese cuisine. “Sake is a great base to mix with because, although many sakes are complex, some are straightforward and take on the flavors of other components in the drink.” Johnson began playing with sake cocktails seven years ago when he opened Bao 111, another New York City Asian concept. “I applied for a full liquor license and didn’t get one until nine months later,” re-calls the certified master sake sommelier. He experimented with infusing sake with fruits such as pomegranate, pineapple and strawberries and spices such as basil, lemongrass and galangal. His Thai Mango Basil Mojito proved popular, as did an Apple Pie Toddy.

Even though his new place, Bao Noodles, has a full liquor license, sake cocktails are a popular call there.

Johnson believes operators can charge as much for a sake cocktail as for a spirit-based one. “You charge for quality ingredients as well as for the time and expertise to make a cocktail of any kind.” And you don’t have to run an Asian concept to sell saketinis. “They’ll work anywhere.”

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