Oka Kura Sweet Bermutto Review
That's right folks, following up on their stellar flagship release, Oka Kura has released a new expression of their wildly popular Bermutto, this time a functional approximation of sweet red vermouth. I was the first to write about and review Oka Kura (besides their import partners Tokiwa and High Road Spirits, duh) and I'm thrilled to be in the position to do the same for this new bottling. This brings me to the following disclaimer:
I now write content for Skurnik Wines and Spirits, the distributor of Oka Kura in many parts of the US. As you can tell from my first review, written nearly two years before I moved into that role, I'm a fan of Oka Kura and their products. Also, this is a personal blog, and while some of the largest publications in spirits and cocktails have clearly used some of my research to inform their own writing, I'm not making money (quite the opposite actually—notice the complete lack of ads and brand-sponsored content) and have no horse in the race, so to speak. I just frickin' love all things fortified. Also I'm pretty sure nobody I work with knows/cares that this blog exists anyway.
In the event that you aren't familiar with Oka Kura Bermutto, I urge you to explore the range and start with the drier, flagship expression. The TLDR is Oka Kura Bermutto is a uniquely Japanese take on the category of vermouth made from aromatized, shochu-fortified sake. While not technically a vermouth because it is not wine-based, it functions in cocktails as a vermouth should—a botanically-infused, low ABV modifier—and generally bridges a gap between sake, shochu, and vermouth.
Oka Kura Sweet Bermutto contains the same base structure of sake and shochu as well as the same base botanicals, but adds ume, a Japanese green plum, and sweetens it with kokuto, an Okinawan cane sugar. This was actually my introduction to Kokuto, a slow cooked raw cane sugar prized for its depth of flavor, subtle smokiness, and concentrated iron content.
Oka Kura Sweet Bermutto
Wine Base: Junmai Sake (fermented rice alcohol, not wine)
Known Botanicals: 5 total: yomogi (Japanese wormwood), yuzu, kabosu, sansho peppercorn, and ume
Sugar: N/A, sweetened with kokuto (Okinawan cane sugar)
Nose: unmistakably plummy, evocative of of umeshu and sloe gin with sour cherry, orange peel, and brown sugar
Palate: oolong tea, tart cherry, grapefruit zest, plum
Finish: caramel, plum, marzipan, faint sake, lemon, orange
Right off the bat I was pleasantly surprised by how drinkable Sweet Bermutto is. A good vermouth should be delicious first and foremost, with cocktail applications coming as an added bonus.
While this can certainly be approached as you would a sweet vermouth, it isn't as botanically complex as just about any sweet red offering on the market, providing very little of the expected herbs or baking spices found in the most common Italian, French, Spanish, and US offerings. In terms of high-toned acidity and bitterness, it plays a bit more like a quinquina, with Matte Cap Corse or Bonal probably being the closest off the top of my head. I tossed it into a Corpse Reviver #2 in place of the quinquina to be sure, and guess what? Delicious. As it turns out, Sweet Bermutto really likes absinthe!
Lengthening Sweet Bermutto with soda water reveals its surprisingly delicate nature, or rather, its lack of heavy sugar. There's just enough for it to stand up to high proof rye whiskey in a Manhattan, but rather than providing both the sugar for body and a slew of spices, the Bermutto's botanicals are dialed back and in full-on support mode, resulting in a Manhattan that mostly highlights the whiskey.
That said, if not thoughtfully paired with a whiskey of character, you'll find yourself disappointed at the limped Manhattans you'll find yourself stirring up. A barspoon of demerara syrup brings structure and balance back to these cocktails in the same way leaner French, Spanish, and American vermouths often require, while echoing the kokuto in the bottle.
Indiana rye whiskey (Roulette Rye), Japanese single grain (Suntory Chita), and two Japanese blended whiskies (Mars Iwai 45 and Akashi) all found varying success, but it was a close relative of whiskey that I enjoyed best: barley shochu. A Manhattan with SG Shochu Mugi, a blended barley shochu, finally offered that sense of gestalt I've come to expect from this simple classic. I mean, duh, of course good shochu is going to complement and echo the base notes of of a shochu-fortified sake, base grains be damned!
Speak Low, High Road
2 oz SG Shochu MUGI
1 oz Oka Kura Sweet Bermutto
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Stir, strain, no garnish
Moving away from the more obvious pairings, my current boss and former Pouring Ribbons alum, Amanda Elder, found Sweet Bermutto to harmoniously pair with a wide range funky, fruity rums from Rum Fire to San Zanj, a blend of Haitian clairin and rum distilled from sugarcane juice.
2 oz Oka Kura Sweet Bermutto
1 oz San Zanj Unaged Haitian Rum
1 dash Angostura Bitters
1 dash Peychaud's Bitters
Stir, strain in a coupe, and garnish with an orange twist and a light grating of fresh cinnamon
As for a Negroni, both Bermutto expressions display an acidity that can be attributed to citrus comprising 40%–50% of the botanical list—this is great for mixing with syrupy modifiers such as Campari since it cuts the sensation of sweetness on the palate. I don't necessarily need my Negroni cocktails to lean into traditional Italian sweet vermouth profile, but you'll definitely want to be mindful of your gin and red bitter pairing.
Sweet Bermutto doesn't really provide the heavy cinnamon/vanilla/orange backbone many sweet vermouths lean into, instead offering red fruit notes that are less jammy and more tart, in the sour cherry/underripe stone fruit realm. This is not a traditional sweet vermouth (technically not a vermouth at all), so your mileage will vary with 1:1 substitutions.
Instead I implore you to approach this more as a punchier, aromatized umeshu—a Japanese plum liqueur—rather than a traditional European fortified wine (in fact, Oka Kura Sweet Bermutto straddles both worlds). Umeshu is typically made by macerating Japanese plums in shochu and sugar and may be additionally fortified with a variety of distillates such as whisky or brandy. Start by mixing it with soda or tonic water as you would any fortified wine and you're off to a good start.
Unsure of how to use umeshu in cocktails beyond a vermouth substitution? Thankfully, Julia Momose, Kazuo Uyeda, and Masahiro Urushido all have books that explore their own individual takes on Japanese bartending and cocktailing with Japanese ingredients. Of the three, Momose's The Way of the Cocktail should be your go to in my opinion. In addition to the more familiar applications (highballs, teas/tissanes such as mugi cha), you'll find contemporary cocktails such as the Ume Old Fashioned, Smoked Ume Margarita, Ume Shochu Sour.
While we're at it, I may as well mention that Oka Kura also produces a yuzu liqueur. While the only other yuzu liqueur I can compare it against is Marie Brizzard's Yuzu Liqueur. I'm not going to spend the time deep diving into this one as it is pretty straightforward—it's a delicious yuzu liqueur which can serve a wide variety of functions. Mix it with soda water, done. Mix it with tonic, done. Throw half ounce into any lemon-based cocktail and it will transform that citrus into, you guessed it, yuzu! Or heck, use it as a replacement or supplement for orange liqueur in daisy cocktails like a White Lady or a Sidecar (try blanc Armagnac instead of Cognac in that one).
Stay safe out there, y'all.