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Cherry blossom cocktails channel the flavor and promise of spring

The Ozaki Blossom cocktail, left, and the Sakura Martini. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

The cherry blossoms are here. Ogle (and sip) them while you can.

For those who’ve been wanting to make it to a Yayoi Kusama exhibit — you know, the Japanese artist with the highly Instagrammable polka-dot installations — but have been deterred by crowds or covid, now is a time to celebrate: Thanks to the cherry trees, many of us can get a similar experience simply by stepping outside. We’re walking on constellations of polka dots. Their petals are in the air; they’re stickered to our cars. I found a few in my hair last week.

The trees are in full bloom in Japan, too, the source of the trees celebrated in Washington every year since the mayor of Tokyo gifted them to the Taft administration in 1912. Hanami — flower viewing — is an annual public celebration in Japan, one that people have been enjoying for centuries. The Tale of Genji, the 11th-century Japanese text often cited as history’s first novel, references a cherry blossom (sakura) festival. The flowering is still celebrated, now with more selfies and an accompanying wave of sakura-based goodies in Japan, some of them traditional, like teas and mochi, but also pale pink sakura drinks at Starbucks, sakura Coke and sakura Kit Kats. What would a glorious celebration of nature’s rebirth be if global brands didn’t find their way into it?

To be fair, I too want to gather the cherry buds while I may. I cannot see this explosion of petal without wanting to incorporate it into drinks, its flavor and delicate aroma, and sometimes simply as a beautiful garnish.

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There are some bottles that can help — Roku and a number of other gins include cherry blossom in their roster of botanicals, and there’s a delicious pale pink vermouth from Mancino flavored with sakura extract and Italian violet. Don Ciccio & Figli’s Cerasum, a bittersweet cherry aperitivo, includes sakura blossoms as well as fruit. (There are also plenty of cherry liqueurs, of course, but they are a different beast. Cherry cultivars have been bred to emphasize either fruit or flower. The trees showing off around the Tidal Basin right now are not going to produce something tasty later; there’s a reason the National Cherry Blossom Festival is not followed by a horrifying National Cherry-Stomping Bloodbath. The only ones enjoying these trees’ bitter little fruits may be D.C.’s pigeons, who are on the record as willing to eat anything. I once saw a D.C. pigeon going full cannibal on a discarded box of Popeyes. This town, amirite?)

But I digress.

For cherry blossom drinks, you can also go right to the plant. The sake-and-gin house martini at both Bar Goto and Bar Goto Niban in New York incorporates a pickled salted cherry blossom, adrift in the drink like a blushing jellyfish.

“Many people like to garnish a martini with an olive because they enjoy a hint of saltiness to finish the drink,” bartender and owner Kenta Goto said in an email. “Salted cherry blossoms, with a delicate floral salinity, replace the olives here and work really beautifully with the sake and maraschino.”

Goto recommends selecting a sake and gin that pair well — for example, using a gentle, elegant daiginjo sake with a gentle, elegant gin like Plymouth or Portobello, or going the opposite direction by pairing a bolder namazake or genshu sake with a traditional London dry gin. “Both delicate and bolder versions of this cocktail work — what is most important is matching your sake and gin and finding harmony in those flavors.”

In her book “The Way of the Cocktail: Japanese Traditions, Techniques & Recipes,” Julia Momosé, creative director and bartender at Kumiko, a Japanese dining bar in Chicago, showcases a number of cherry blossom drinks and was preparing a sakura-themed menu for April when we spoke.

Momosé, who wrote her book with Emma Janzen, has felt connected to the sakura from a young age; she has pictures of herself as a toddler out with her family seeing the trees in Japan. Growing up there, she says, “the seasons are really important, and we definitely celebrate them. Sakura is one of those moments where everyone just goes outside and goes on these little walks, either just in their neighborhood or a little drive to sakura groves, so every spring I’m excited to share a little of that joy.”

Her Sakurazuké Martini plays off the sakura mochi popular in Japan this time of year, a treat of a salted cherry blossom leaf wrapped around a pale pink mochi (rice cake) stuffed with koshian, a sweet red bean paste. Momosé cocktail-ifies the treat with sake (standing in for the rice), Mancino cherry blossom vermouth, a touch of Campari and a solution made from salted cherry blossoms.

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The salted pickled blossoms, she says, are a great way to get the flavors into drinks, “because since they’re preserved, you can bring them out whenever it feels right. And I love the way they unfurl and bloom in the glass — I think it’s one of the most striking, stunning but also practical garnishes, because you can eat it and actually taste the flower.”

Masahiro Urushido, whose enviable title at his New York bar Katana Kitten is “director of deliciousness,” incorporated those salted cherry leaves that are wrapped around sakura mochi into a cocktail as well, creating a Sakura Julep. (Urushido has a D.C. pop-up running through Saturday at Silver Lyan in the Riggs hotel in Penn Quarter.)

In his book, “The Japanese Art of the Cocktail,” written with Michael Anstendig, Urushido uses the leaves in an oleo saccharum (in which sugar is used to draw out the flavors of other botanical ingredients), adding their salt and herbaceous quality to a whiskey drink accented with peach and ginger. “Preserving the cherry blossoms helps you enjoy them out of season, allowing you to enjoy the season in a different time,” he says.

You can source both the salted blossoms and leaves at some Japanese markets and online. But what about right now, when we’re surrounded by the trees in full blossom?

As a rule, garnishes should be functional as well as visually appealing. We garnish a martini with an olive or a twist of lemon not just because it looks good, but because the drink tastes better with it; fresh mint goes in a julep not solely for that glorious green but because the fragrance that hits your nose before the drink hits your lips impacts the flavor.

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I generally abide by this rule, but when the world is plush with cool pink blossoms, you’re not going to catch me enforcing cocktail catechism. A fresh cherry blossom looks beautiful floating atop a martini, and its aroma is more likely to enhance than harm the drink. And if you want to drop one in a drink where all it’s going to do is sit there and look pretty, who am I to judge? Like they say, the eyes drink first.

Consider where you’re foraging, though. You’re not going to make yourself ill by resting a fresh, gently rinsed flower on the surface of your cocktail. If, on the other hand, you’re going further — salt-pickling your own blossoms, or infusing the blossoms into a spirit, where the alcohol will extract whatever the trees have been soaking up — you’ll want to exercise more care.

No one wants to end up with a drink that tastes like exhaust from the tour buses dropping people off to gawk at the cherry trees. Except maybe a D.C. pigeon.

Sakura Martini

Active time: 5 minutes

Total time: 2 hours

1 serving

A lighter martini due to its base of sake (Japanese rice wine) and gin, this is the house martini at Bar Goto in New York. Pair bolder gins with bolder sakes, or more light and floral gins with lighter ones. The salted cherry blossom garnish is not just for show — its brine adds a trace of the salinity you get from the olive often used in classic martinis. You’ll find tweezers a useful tool to handle the delicate garnish.

Where to buy: Salted cherry blossoms are available at Japanese specialty stores and online.

Scale this recipe and get a printer-friendly, desktop version here.

1 salted cherry blossom

Ice

2 1/2 ounces dry sake

1 ounce gin

1/4 teaspoon maraschino liqueur

A few hours before you serve the drink, soak the salted cherry blossom in hot water to remove any excess salt, then transfer to cold water until you’re ready to serve the drink. You may want to use tweezers to avoid damaging the flower.

About 5 minutes before serving, chill a cocktail glass in the freezer.

Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add the sake, gin and maraschino liqueur, and stir to chill and dilute.

Strain the drink into the chilled glass and garnish with the cherry blossom.

Ozaki Blossom

Total time: 5 minutes

1 serving

Named for the mayor of Tokyo who presented a shipment of cherry blossom trees to the Taft administration in 1912, this cocktail uses Mancino cherry blossom vermouth and a touch of yuzu citrus for a bright, delicately floral drink. A gin such as Roku or Citadelle Jardin d’Ete, both of which include yuzu in their botanicals, is a great option, but any floral or citrus-forward gin will do nicely. A fresh cherry blossom makes a nice garnish but won’t impact the flavor of the drink.

Where to buy: Mancino cherry blossom vermouth is available at Lax Wine & Spirits in Beltsville and Batch 13 in the District; it’s also available online. Yuzu juice can be found at some Whole Foods and many Asian markets; if you can’t find it, Meyer lemon juice is a good substitute.

Scale this recipe and get a printer-friendly, desktop version here.

Ice

1 dash Peychaud’s bitters

1/4 ounce yuzu juice

1/4 ounce simple syrup

2 ounces gin (see headnote)

1 ounce Mancino cherry blossom vermouth

1 cherry blossom, for garnish (optional)

About 5 minutes before you want to serve the drink, chill a Nick and Nora glass or small cocktail coupe in the freezer.

Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add the bitters, yuzu juice, simple syrup, gin and vermouth, and stir to dilute and chill. Garnish with a cherry blossom, if using, and serve.

Recipes from Kenta Goto, bartender at Bar Goto in New York, and Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan. Recipes tested by M. Carrie Allan.

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