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Know Your Booze: The Japan Edition

Each country, and often each region within that country, has its own alcoholic beverage specific to them. What follows is by no means a comprehensive guide to every and all alcohol that is unique to Japan. Rather, it is intended as a snapshot of what’s common (and, thankfully, readily available) throughout the Japanese archipelago. A little knowledge does not necessarily need to be a dangerous thing.

Sake/Nihonshu (日本酒)
This well-known Japanese “rice wine” is made through the fermentation of milled rice, water, and white koji mold. With an alcohol content typically in the 12–20% range, it is available in both a filtered and an (increasingly popular) unfiltered version. A distinguishing feature of sake is that it is meant to be consumed within 6–8 months of production. So while it may commonly be referred to as rice wine, it is actually closer to beer in regard to its relatively shorter shelf life and fermentation process.

Sake is categorized into four basic types: Junmai, Honjozo, Ginjo, and Daiginjo. (Five if you include Namazake.) How these differ from one another is based largely on how much rice is milled or polished away in the production process and whether any distilled alcohol is added.

How to drink: Depending on the season, the quality, and personal preference, either chilled, warm, hot, or room temperature are all acceptable. For reference, premium sake is almost always served chilled or warm, never hot.

sake

Shochu (焼酎)
This distilled spirit comes in a number of varieties, and can be made from most anything. Some of the more common base ingredients are sweet potatoes, rice, barley, buckwheat, and even chestnuts or sugar cane. Naturally, each of these (or a combination thereof) have their own distinct flavor and aroma. While its alcohol content can fall anywhere between 20–40%, most shochu comes in at around 25%.

Shochu is created through the process of “saccharification,” in which starch is converted to sugars. An essential ingredient in this process—as with sake—is koji. White, black, or yellow varieties can be used in its production.

How to drink: As with many spirits, there are several options. Straight, on the rocks, with water, warm (especially popular in Japan during winter)… there really is no right or wrong way. Your preference is all that matters.

Additionally, shochu is a common spirit used in the making of Umeshu, a surprisingly sweet Japanese plum liqueur, as well as Chuhai, an extremely popular cocktail that is sold (mostly) in cans next to beer in convenience stores.

chuhai

Whisky (ウィスキー)
Anyone who has seen Lost in Translation has at least heard of Japanese whisky brand Suntory. Well, Suntory whisky is good for more than just “relaxing times.” The Yamazaki blend of Suntory whisky can hold its weight with any whisky of the West. So much so that in 2013 the World Whiskey Bible awarded the Yamazaki Single Malt 97.5 marks out of 100. Made in a distillery in western Kyoto, the Yamazaki Single Malt 12-year is sure to please any whisky fanatic. And while many visiting Kyoto will no doubt spend the majority of their time visiting the ancient shrines and temples, you might want to note that the Yamazaki distillery offers free tours (and free samples).

For the more casual drinker, the Highball is a nice and easy way to enjoy Japanese whisky. Simply a mix of whisky, soda water, and a touch of lemon, the Highball is not only cheap but also most often served in a mug, making it a nice alternative to a draft beer when choosing that first drink at an izakaya. Highballs often run ¥100 cheaper (or more) than draft beer, so those looking to save a few coins should definitely consider giving it a try.

How to drink: Yamazaki blends should be enjoyed on the rocks, with a dash of water if you must. For a Highball, more affordable whisky, such as Suntory Kaku or Nikka Black, makes the best base. And as these brands—as well as soda water and lemons—are available at most every convenience store, it makes for a readily available (and very drinkable) nightcap.

Beer (ビール)
The “big four” producers in Japan are Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. All of which have origins in the late 1800s during Japan’s Meiji period—a time of drastic reforms, the opening of commerce, and influence from the West.

While tastes will unquestionably vary, listed below from top to bottom are suggestions for the first-time Japanese beer drinker.

First up is Japan’s oldest beer brand, Sapporo. In addition to this brew, Sapporo also produces the ever-popular Yebisu beer (note: the ‘Y’ is silent), which is considered by many to be the company’s premium line. If you find yourself confronted with several Yebisu selections, go for Silk (in the white can). While none of the Yebisu beers contain any additives, Silk offers a much “smoother” taste.

Second is one of Kirin’s top sellers, Ichiban lager, which has been “brewed for good times” if the label is to be believed. A very drinkable pale lager, its name (for those interested) is short for “ichiban shibori” (“first pressings”).

Perhaps tied for third are Asahi and Suntory. Asahi is best known for its consistently best-selling lager, Super Dry, which the company began producing in 1987. Although it may be the “go to” beer for many a salaryman, beer drinkers outside Japan often describe it as an average/below average lager that borders on watery. Suntory, despite its founding in 1899, did not enter the beer game until the 1960s, and as such is still better known for its soft drinks, spirits, and wine. Suntory’s The Premium—equally well-known and distributed—receives only average (to slightly above average) reviews as well.

Craft Beer (クラフトビール)
The craft beer—also known as ji-biru (地ビール/”local beer”)—scene had a somewhat rough start in the 1990s, but has since exploded in Japan over the past decade. One can now even find certain varieties of craft beer at convenience stores, although specialty bars are still an obvious preference. The list of available domestic and imported craft brews is impressive, and far too extensive to even consider listing here. But, a few standouts are the widely popular Yona Yona Ale (produced by Yoho Brewing Company) and Kiuchi Brewery’s Hitachino Nest Beer (a quality top-fermented ale).

If you happen to be in (or even near) Tokyo, an absolute must visit is Popeye Beer Club, which proudly features 70+ brews on tap. Try to make it there in time for their happy hour.

How to drink: Really?

yebisu copy

Happoshu (Literally, “Bubbling Spirits”) and Third Beer (第三のビール)
Looks like beer. Has the same alcohol content as beer. Tastes like be… well, not so fast. Happoshu is a low-malt beverage, not unlike a light beer, which came about as a result of brewers taking advantage of reduced taxes on alcoholic beverages with low-malt content. These tax breaks previously allowed brewers to sell Happoshu at prices cheaper than normal beers. However, increasingly lower tax revenues left the Japanese government with no choice but to eventually up the taxes on these drinks in the 1990s.

It was this that gave rise to the newest generation of even cheaper faux beers… the so-called “third beer.” What is perhaps most unique (for lack of a better word) is the fact that these large-scale, commercial brews contain little to no malt, and are instead made with such ingredients as peas or soy peptides (along with other questionable chemicals).

How to drink: Preferably not at all. But if you must, then straight from the can (quickly) while standing on the corner outside the store.

Kampai!

  • tokyo chris

    very interesting, thanks! and yes, i agree completely about popeye’s in ryogoku. japan’s craft beer “mecca”.

    • jeff cooper

      A guy I work with mentioned this place. I have never been there, but will definitely try to make it there this summer. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  • js

    “Yebis beer (note: the ‘Y’ is silent)”

    OMG I never knew this! Here I was telling my Japanese friends that I loved YEAHbisu beer when I visited Japan in the 80s. They just looked at me and laughed! Boy do I feel like a dope. Thank you for correcting my ignorance Mr. Zhang.

    • Peter Zhang

      Glad to help! Haha. Yeah, I pronounced it with the “Y” myself, back when I first spent time in Japan.

  • Camo

    I’m actually moving to Japan next year to teach English and I will be saving this one to read again. Cheers!

    • big in japan

      Congrats, Camo. You’ll either love it or hate it. (Most likely you’ll love it, though.) Depends on where you end up I guess. I suggest ya check ’em out on Twitter as well, as a lot, not all but a lot, will probably come in handy in Japan.