When Jason Mraz’s entourage waltzed into Chatrium Hotel’s Ritz Exclusive Lounge earlier this month, they were surprised to find a cocktail named in honour of the American artist: Mraz Magic.
“It was very popular, they loved it a lot,” said Ritz bar manager Kenneth Brian (Aung Htay), who devised the drink. “It’s specially designed to make the party go on and on.”
But Mraz Magic is not your average cocktail; its main ingredient is sake, the Japanese alcohol generally made from fermented rice. Potent but delightfully drinkable, it also features vodka, blue curacao, lime juice and Red Bull.
To say Mr Brian knows his sake is something of an understatement. Over the past few months he has overseen the establishment of a sake bar in the Ritz Exclusive Lounge using the knowledge he gleaned from eight years working abroad, including stints in Singapore and Dubai, where he even hosted private parties for oil-rich Arab princes. (“They would book out the whole bar, just a group of 20 of them, and then go down to the restaurant to try and encourage other guests to come and join them.”)
He joined Chatrium after returning to Myanmar in 2011, and earlier this year convinced the hotel’s general manager that Yangon was ready for a sake bar. While the premise is simple, the execution is harder than you would expect, particularly when you are offering more than 30 types of sake, 10 types of soju and 13 sake-based cocktails.
“At first I was a bit afraid that nobody would like it, particularly because sake is more expensive than whiskey. Also, we have to import everything — what if we run out and can’t get more? These were things I was worried about at first,” he said.
“We also had to train the staff, because many of the bottles don’t have any English writing. Also, most Myanmar and European guests don’t know much about it, so we have to be able to explain and recommend something.”
The row of empty bottles behind the bar from the previous night, when, the weary-looking Mr Brian said, the festivities ended around 4:30am, is testament to its early success. “We’ve already gone through about 25 bottles of this one in little more than a month,” he said, holding up a 1.8 litre bottle of the bar’s house sake, Ozeki Silver, which sells for US$7 for a 150-millilitre pot.
More expensive varieties have also proven popular, including a sparkling sake that comes in 300ml bottles priced at $80. A bottle of Hyakujyu Kabota goes for the princely sum of $180. Sound on the expensive side? Not so, Mr Brian said.
“The first thing our Japanese guests say is, ‘wow, you have a sake bar’. The second thing is, ‘and it’s so cheap’. Internationally, our house sake, for example, would be $10 or $12. But in Myanmar we try to keep the prices down because most people aren’t very familiar. We just want them to give it a go,” he said.
To encourage this, Mr Brian offers what he calls a “sake flight”: a handle of three small cups of different types of sake: honjozo, junmai and dai ginjo.
One of the main challenges is overcoming misconceptions about the drink: that it is rough, or too high in alcohol. To ease people in, there’s the range of cocktails as well as plum sake, or umeshu, which has so far been popular with Myanmar visitors. “It’s like a dessert wine; ladies really like it,” he said. “People in Myanmar are still not familiar with sake but hopefully I can slowly introduce them to it.”