Bartenders love new toys, and their constant search for unique and promising ingredients happily results in flavorful experiences for the rest of us.
The current favorite plaything of Seattle drink shakers isn't an obscure amaro or esoteric Bolivian brandy (don't worry, they have those too). Rather, it's a Far Eastern citrus once used only sparingly in cocktails and now finding favor with barkeeps and the neophiliacs they serve.
Yuzu, the lemon-like fruit grown in East Asia, is popping up on menus all over town, adding much-needed variety to tired citrus palettes.
"It's become far more than just a novelty citrus in the cocktail scene, and in the country in general," says Eli Hetrick, assistant manager at Foreign National. "It's becoming a much more usable, practical ingredient all around."
While local yuzu sightings are on the rise—from Umi Sake House's yuzu margarita to Foreign National's Osaka #1—the bumpy fruit is a staple ingredient in many Asian cuisines. It flavors the ponzu sauce you've likely dipped your sashimi in and the salty/spicy kosho paste used heavily in Japanese fare. With inquisitive bartenders constantly mining their restaurants' kitchens for ingredients, it's no wonder we're seeing it in more potable forms.
Dustin Haarstad had dabbled with yuzu and other "weird" citruses while working in Southern California—where the weather is as good for growing citrus as it is for shedding tan lines. But the veteran barman's yuzu awakening didn't occur until he landed at Adana (formerly Naka) on Capitol Hill, where chef/owner Shota Nakajima gave him a bottle of a "super expensive" yuzu juice to play with. "It was like nothing else I've ever tried," Haarstad recalls.
When Naka underwent its February rebrand from high-end Japanese cuisine to the more approachable Adana, Haarstad wanted to put a subtle twist on a familiar classic cocktail. His French 75 riff ditches the lemon juice for the "super bright" and fragrant yuzu he says is perfect for spring.
"In terms of aromatics, yuzu is king," Haarstad insists.
Yuzu tastes like a gentle mix of lemon, grapefruit, and mandarin orange, offering a welcome alternative to the bar world's lemon-lime duopoly. Beyond its floral bouquet, bartenders hail the lower acid content found in yuzu juice (at least in the bottled stuff), which has less pucker per ounce than lemons or limes. At Stateside, Foreign National's sibling Vietnamese restaurant, the stellar house daiquiri—one of the best I've had in a while—combines yuzu and lime juices for an alluring curveball with just enough zip.
Similarly, Hetrick marries yuzu and lemon in his Osaka #1, fearing the lemon's sourness alone would "squash" the subtleties of the drink's Japanese whiskey.
Aside from its technical uses, Hetrick points to the spate of Asian-influenced restaurants that have opened in Seattle the past few years and a broader infatuation with foreign ingredients as contributing to yuzu's prevalence. Despite growers from Japan's top-producing yuzu region ramping up US exports a few years ago, fresh yuzu is apparently still hard to come by. Furthermore, the high cost and low liquid yield makes using fresh-squeezed yuzu juice—which is said to be tarter—"a dramatically more expensive venture," Hetrick says.
But even the bottled not-from-concentrate juice can be pricey. Haarstad's preferred brand can run from $35 to $50 for a 10-ounce bottle, he says. The pure Yakami Orchard juice Foreign National uses is more manageable, fetching $14 for a 12-ounce bottle on Amazon.
While the majority of Friday-night bar hoppers aren't sipping cocktails for their health benefits, the so-called "superfruit" reportedly contains three times the amount of vitamin C that lemons do (remember that for the morning after). Yuzu—or yuja in Korean—is commonly used with honey in a remedial Korean tea. In Japan, a winter solstice tradition of bathing with yuzu fruits in spas or hot springs is said to ward off sickness.
Due to its subtleties, bottled yuzu plays best with clear spirits like gin, vodka, or light rums, while stronger and darker spirits might overpower it. At Good Bar, cocktail boss Josh Batway slips it into his shochu-based Japanese Commercial Bank #2—a nod to the Pioneer Square building's history; it weaves together a quartet of extremely delicate (perhaps too delicate) Japanese flavors. Elsewhere, Batway loves adding yuzu to nonalcoholic drinks to "surprise" guests.
"If you want something a little more exotic, a lot of people are still discovering yuzu as a flavor," Batway says.
Between its culinary traditions and increased use in beer—don't sleep on Elysian's yuzu-spiked Belgian golden ale—yuzu isn't entirely under the foodie radar. Hetrick notes it's starting to become a "selling point" when patrons spot it on the menu.
If that means bartenders will keep the yuzu concoctions coming, we're all for it.
"I think people here in Seattle are looking for something new and different," says Adana's Haarstad. "If citrus is ever going to become a trend, I think yuzu would be at the forefront of that."
Three to Try
Osaka #1 at Foreign National: "Smoky" and "tropical" might seem like an odd mix, but this Foreign National number deftly plays the two like bagpipes at a beach party. Inspired by the "semi-unknown" classic Glasgow #1, Hetrick's interpretation takes a Japanese turn with yuzu and Toki—a blended Japanese whiskey akin to a lighter, more aromatic Scotch, Hetrick says. The yuzu and tiki-staple orgeat has you reaching for the sunscreen, while the peaty whiff of an Islay Scotch spritz (not to mention the anise-smoked glass) sends a breeze up your tweed Speedo. This aromatic masterpiece is an intercontinental delight.
Zugunruhe at Joule: With a potentially volatile combination of bombastic and delicate flavors, Joule is living dangerously with this nuanced gin drink. But somehow, the contemporary Korean joint keeps its balance while walking a tightrope through a ring of fire. Yuzu, accented with hoppy grapefruit bitters, serves as a floral backdrop for the gin's botanical medley. A hint of a potent anise and saffron amaro gives it a gently herbaceous undercurrent without crashing the elegant party. Meanwhile, the dried hibiscus garnish slowly bleeds its ruby hue into the martini-glass pool. It's as sexy and sophisticated as a James Bond love scene starring anyone besides Pierce Brosnan.
Soju with Yuzu Soda at Tanakasan: When you're not in the mood for a highfalutin five-ingredient cocktail (or at least not in the mood to pay for one), try Tanakasan's soju and yuzu highball. The simple tag team of the Korean spirit and a house-made yuzu soda drinks like vodka lemonade with a bit more depth. It's a tick sweet, but at $6.50 during happy hour, it's affordable and brisk enough to be a summer pounder. If only your college self knew the difference soju and yuzu could make on a bottle of Karkov and a two-liter jug of Minute Maid.