Considering the role of sushi rice in the culinary realm—often used as a bridge for strong flavors of minerally fish and astringent wasabi—it makes sense that in cocktails, the sticky ingredient would help flavors, well, stick.
“It softens the heat of the spirit and makes the flavors more cohesive,” explains Leanne Favre, who uses rice in the Rosé Colored Glasses, a cocktail served at Brooklyn restaurant Winona’s. Smoothing the rougher edges of Japanese whisky with an à la minute rice wash by adding grains to the mixing glass helps the spirit adhere to and amplify the drink’s other ingredients, aromatic rosé vermouth and Cappelletti aperitivo liqueur. The move impacts mouthfeel, too, as the starch imparts a rounder texture to the drink.
“I love trying this with any classics that have bitter elements,” says Favre, recommending the trick for Negronis and Boulevardiers. In fact, in her Negroni de Nubes, which is inspired by the texture of horchata, a couple tablespoons of rice lend the drink a “delightful creaminess.” But while the technique works particularly well to buff out harsh, bitter flavors, Favre says it can also be applied to any stirred classic, from Old-Fashioneds to Martinis, for a subtler effect.
In shaken drinks, rice can likewise bridge the gap between flavors, smoothing out the edges of citrusy classics. A similar effect can be achieved by infusing the rice into spirits or sweeteners, which can be kept on hand to sub into familiar recipes for a rounder texture. At Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina, the Toasted Rice Daiquiri gets its starchiness in two ways: Bartender Zig Payton sautés Carolina Gold rice before steeping it into simple syrup, then heats it sous vide with rum. In the cocktail, this makes for an “unctuous” texture, says co-owner Sean Umstead. Shaken, the ingredients help the Daiquiri riff “hold incredible froth,” he says. Like orgeat, the toasty, nutty notes of the syrup are fragrant and lightly floral and can be applied to just about any shaken cocktail for added dimension.
The genius of this technique is how a little can go a long way. Just a few grains of rice become a hardworking ingredient to pack a punch in more ways than one. As Umstead puts it, “It’s as useful for body and texture as it is for flavor, if not more.”