New Bar at Oakland's Umami Mart
The shop now offers an entrée into Japanese drinking culture.
Guests at Umami Mart’s bar can order shochu and sake, or partake in instructional tastings.
The East Bay’s most interesting place for day drinking is tucked inside of Umami Mart’s new Oakland digs in Temescal—past the shop’s carefully curated Japanese barware displays, past shelves lined with handmade ceramics and Kewpie mayo, all the way to the back. This is where co-owners Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano have set up an intimate six-seat bar, open three days a week until no later than 7 p.m., specializing in sake and shochu.
Umami Mart has been the go-to destination for these drinks—the first brewed by fermenting polished rice, the second distilled from sweet potato, rice, barley, or other ingredients—since the retail store started selling bottles in 2015. Pouring them in-house was the next logical step.
Now, you can sit at the bar and enjoy a glass of one (or more) of the roughly 10 sakes and 4 shochus available on the menu that week while snacking on a stick of Japanese fish sausage. Even better, ask for a custom flight like the one Akabori poured for me: a delicate junmai ginjo with the kind of funky undertones you’d usually expect in a red wine; a cloudy-white orizake brewed in West Oakland, yogurty and in-your-face; and a shochu that burned my throat and filled the room with the fragrance of pineapple and guava. “This one is really special,” Akabori said each time she introduced a rarity—a selection you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else—which feels like almost every bottle. That’s just the kind of place this is. umamimart.com.
Sake, Whiskey, and Shochu 101
A primer on Japan’s top tipples—and the best spots to find them.
When Umami Mart opened its new sake and shochu tasting room this past May, the timing could hardly have been better: All around the East Bay, people are taking more of an interest in Japanese drinking culture—particularly in sake, shochu, and Japanese whisky. Here’s a quick guide:
Often misidentified as a spirit, sake is actually brewed by fermenting polished rice (a process roughly analogous to the way beer is made). It typically winds up with an alcohol by volume somewhere in the ballpark of 15 percent—so, it’s closer to wine. Your run-of-the-mill sushi restaurant might offer three sake options on the menu: a junmai, a ginjo, and a daiginjo—classifications that have to do with how much polishing the rice used to brew the sake has undergone, but which the average layperson usually understands as “the cheap one,” “the expensive one,” and “the really, really expensive one.” Part of Umami Mart’s goal is to debunk that kind of thinking. Sure, daiginjos are the most costly to produce, but co-owner Kayoko Akabori says there are plenty of interesting, exceptional-tasting sakes at the junmai and ginjo levels, too—hence the bar’s wide-ranging and eclectic selection.
Japanese whiskies really started to blow up internationally around 2015, when a single-malt stunner from Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery became the first non-scotch ever to be named World Whiskey of the Year. The truth is that the Japanese have been producing high-quality whiskeys, prized for their smoothness and well-balanced flavor, for decades. In Japan, by far the most popular way to enjoy this beverage is by drinking a highball—made, in the Japanese style, with a little bit of whiskey, a lot of seltzer water and ice, and often a twist of citrus. Here in the East Bay, you can try one of these refreshing, low-alcohol cocktails at Bar Shiru, a Japanese-inspired hi-fi listening bar in Uptown Oakland that features more than 30 Japanese whiskeys on its menu.
Still relatively unknown to the average American boozehound, shochu is probably Japan’s most popular everyday drinking option. The spirit—not to be confused with Korean soju—is distilled from grains such as rice, barley, and sweet potatoes. Ippuku, the stylish yakitori joint in downtown Berkeley, may have the largest selection among East Bay restaurants. And the lemon chuhai—a highball drink made with shochu instead of whiskey—at West Oakland’s Soba Ichi is almost as much of a draw as the restaurant’s namesake noodles.