Though a few places around San Francisco have served cocktails containing sesame in recent years, suddenly it seems we’re sipping on seeds all over town. Local drinks feature black and white sesame seeds in a variety of forms — as decorative dust, oil, syrup, and salt — and draw inspiration from countries including China, Mexico, and Japan. The flavor trend seems to sit in with some larger ones: a rise of Japanese cocktail ingredients, increased popularity of orgeat and the tikification of not-traditionally-tropical drinks, plus the use of newish techniques to alter the form of ingredients between liquids and solids.
And drinkable sesame is having a broader moment nationwide. You can lighten your coffee with sesame milk, and syrup maker Torani crowned toasted black sesame as the “flavor of the year.” In a press release, the company cites the new flavor as tapping into two consumer trends: sesame as an ingredient in a number of international cuisines, and black-colored syrup making drinks more photogenic.
Drops of sesame and other colored oils on martini-style stirred drinks provide a slight aromatic boost — plus it’s just fun to watch the blobs float around and merge as they’re consumed. At the just-opened Akikos, beverage director Quade Marshall offers a drink with sesame in two forms. The Foreign Delegate made with cognac, aged sake, sesame orgeat, bitters, and sesame oil riffs on the Japanese Cocktail with a nod to the Fog Cutter, speaking to Marshall’s time in tiki bars. The sesame oil, dropped atop the drink, serves as a garnish, as it does at Devil’s Acre in a stirred cocktail created by former employee Jordan Hernandez called the Full Moon made with mezcal, apricot, and vermouth.
To infuse sesame into spirits, most local bartenders use the technique of “fat washing,” which involves soaking a fatty or oily substance in a spirit, freezing it, and straining it off to leave the flavor and silky texture of the ingredient behind. In San Jose, Jean Garcia of Haberdasher collaborated with a fellow bartender on the Sunomono, which features gin and sesame-infused shochu. To wash the spirit, Garcia heats both the spirit and oil to get the most flavor possible out of the sesame, before freezing and filtering. Garcia says she initially tried coconut oil fat washing but found the flavor too subtle. In this cocktail, however, she opted for sesame in order to bring “an Asian element” to the drink.
At Pabu, bar lead Natalie Lichtman fat-washes California brandy with a toasted sesame finishing oil. That brandy, along with bourbon, a floral liqueur, citrus, and orgeat come together in a rich but still food-friendly drink called the Karakasa. “I wanted something that was luscious and drinks like a whiskey sour, but if you break it down it reads like a mai tai,” she says. William Cao, bar manager of the Progress, also combined sesame-washed aged rum with almond orgeat in his Lost Voyage. “That drink was sort of inspired by Korean barbecue where you have sesame oil with salt to dip your meat in,” Cao says. At Empress by Boon, Emily Parian created a highball called the Upside Down with sesame-washed Japanese whisky, garlic and pepper vodka, bay syrup, lime, and soda. At Santa Rosa’s Lazeaway Club, bartenders used to oil-wash their bourbon but now do a more standard infusion of ground sesame seeds in whiskey, which is combined with vanilla liqueur, vermouth, and bitters in a drink called Maneki-Neko.
Other bartenders are infusing sesame into a liqueur rather than a base spirit. At True Laurel, the Bobby Boo-Urns is Nicolas Torres’ take on the Bobby Burns, a spiced scotch Manhattan, where he substitutes sesame-washed genepy herbal liqueur for Benedictine. The cocktail list at Elements at One65 features the Sesame Streeter, a Brooklyn variation with sesame-infused maraschino liqueur, and at Dalva, the Public Sesame #1 includes sesame-infused orange curacao. Davla’s Eric Ochoa, who created the drink with bartender Zakk Najera, says it was inspired by the flavor of Chinese sesame dessert balls.
At other bars, sesame serves an aesthetic purpose. Zaytoon in Albany serves the Habibi, made with bourbon, amaretto, allspice dram, tahini, honey, and sesame seeds sprinkled on top. On the new menu at Trick Dog, Nick Amano-Dolan and William Ancira created the Zodiac. Made with gin, Cynar, pineapple, palo santo, and lemon, the drink also gets black sesame powder dusted over a goat head-shaped stencil on top.
Across town at Causwells, Elmer Mejicanos created the Open Sesame, one of the bar’s signature drinks that’s made with tequila, vermouth, cold-pressed poblano, lime, and agave. On the side of the glass, it gets a garnish of black volcanic salt and toasted sesame. The inspiration for that drink, however, comes not from international cuisines or broader trends. It’s personal. “The Open Sesame is my love letter to Mexico and my childhood memories of eating hard-toasted sesame candies,” he says.