THIS YEAR, THERE will be a shortage of Champagne. A slew of factors (supply-chain woes, COVID-19, droughts — basically every terrible thing you read in the news) has converged on the celebration industrial complex and dried up the flow of the twinkly bubbles that are the soul of your bottomless brunch mimosas. After New Year’s, the fizzy wine will be even more rare, and the cathartic thrill of launching a Champagne cork halfway across the room with that signature POP even more elusive. But, for those of you not afraid to take a more plebeian approach to celebration, may I suggest an alternative effervescent explosion: the sake bomb.
The sake bomb is not a highbrow beverage. It is more performance than cocktail, more activity than libation. To prepare, pour most of a beer (an inexpensive Japanese beer is preferable, like Asahi or Sapporo) into a tall glass tumbler, leaving the glass at least one-third empty. Then balance two flat wooden chopsticks on the glass like a pair of railroad tracks. The type of chopsticks you use is important: The fancy, polished, round ones will make for a more difficult balancing act. What you want are the disposable, squared-off ones that you split apart right before eating, chopsticks that can sit on a flat surface without rolling around. Then you pour a shot of sake into a sake cup or shot glass and balance it on the two chopsticks like a wee hat.
And then, my friends, comes the difficult, loud, sociably anti-social bit: You have to bang on the table with your hand hard enough to jostle the chopsticks apart in exactly the right way to allow the shot glass to drop into the beer. The combination will immediately froth wildly, like baking soda and vinegar, filling up the rest of the glass and threatening to spill over.
It is your task to pick up the glass and chug the whole thing before it escapes to the floor. This is difficult for two reasons. Firstly, the slamming-dropping action can easily go awry, leading to broken glass, a soaked lap and the need for a wet mop. I have never successfully performed this maneuver myself, but I have had it done for me by bartenders, so I know it can be achieved. Secondly, chugging a beer and a shot that is erupting like a mini-volcano is exactly as hard as it sounds.
There is no definitive source for the origin of the sake bomb, but it is generally thought that it originated with American GIs stationed in Japan during WWII, a cadre of fellows who, great though their generation is, were not known generally for their nuanced appreciation of rice-based spirits. Sake bombs are not about taste; you barely taste the drink as it’s going down, anyway. It’s about raucous fun, making a mess in public and having a little drinkable firework to celebrate whatever’s going right for you these days. It’s nice to know that even our grandparents were doing TikTok challenges long before TikTok. But because sake bombs require an audience, your friends are encouraged to chant, “Ichi … ni … san … sake bomb!” assuring that everyone in the restaurant will know to turn around and watch you.
While I’m sure there’s someone out there dreaming up an artisanal pairing concept for sake bombs with complementary tasting notes, most of the time you’ll be making this with cheap lager and, of course, cheap sake. Establishments that serve finer sake might not want to serve sake bombs for obvious reasons; aside from the combination being decidedly beneath their product, having a boisterous birthday party banging on the furniture could ruin the atmosphere for the sippers around you. So this is the kind of thing for the karaoke bar or the cheap sushi bar down the street with pinball machines, places where the bartender will not think less of you for ordering one because he just watched you forget all the words to “Heart of Glass” in front of a roomful of fellow townspeople.
So please do not fill my inbox with rageful missives about how underappreciated fine sake is in America. 1.) Japanese rice wine, as complicated and storied as grape wine, is an entirely separate discussion that we are not having here, and 2.) Given that the Great Champagne Shortage might push revelers into other celebratory beverages, sake connoisseurs should be secretly glad if people don’t appreciate fine sake. That means there will be more left for them. And for people who like to celebrate their milestones with cheap “champers” anyway, a sake bomb might even be an upgrade.