A Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Alcohol and ‘Sake’
You're finally visiting the Land of the Rising Sun - maybe you're in the midst of planning your trip or already sitting in a bar frantically googling names of different sake brands to figure out what to order. While you're in Japan it'd be a crime not to taste the local tipple, but where do you start? Read on to dive into the wonderful world of Japanese alcohol.
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Types of Japanese Alcohol
First off you'll need to understand that 'sake' in Japanese just means alcohol in general, from beer to highballs, they're all sake here. What's referred to as sake in English is called nihonshu in Japanese, a kind of rice wine that typically has an alcohol content of between 13-16%.
This is usually the main beverage most foreigners want to sample and with many of them having a mild, sweet flavor, it's a good way to ease yourself into Japanese alcohol. However there's also shochu, awamori and koshu which are often grouped into 'sake' and mistakenly ordered by foreigners when trying to dip their toes into rice wine. With a stronger alcohol content and more potent flavor than nihonshu, it can be off-putting for first timers and convince them that Japanese alcohol just isn't for them.
While nihonshu is fermented in a vaguely similar way to wine, shochu is a distilled liquor, more akin to vodka or whisky. It's also made with a variety of different ingredients. Apart from using rice as a base ingredient, you'll also find shochu made with sweet potato, barley, buckwheat and sugar cane, leading to large variety of different flavors.
If you're trying it for the first time, it's advisable to try shochu mixed with soda or water first before going for it straight. You'll often also see it mixed with other drinks such as in highballs or 'lemon sours', which is made with lemon juice, soda and shochu.
Similar in taste to shochu, awamori is Okinawa's local alcohol, a distilled beverage made from long grain rice. You'll often find them at slightly higher alcohol content to shochu (usually ranging from 30–40%) and they're often aged in clay pots to give it more flavor. The longer aged pots are then called 'kosu'.
Those traveling to Okinawa and feeling a little braver can also try 'habushu', made from steeping the local pit viper known as habu in awamori.
While nihonshu is generally supposed to be drunk within a year or two of being produced, Japan's brewers have become more and more creative in recent years, bringing back the old tradition of aging nihonshu. Koshu means 'aged alcohol' and is Japanese rice wine that's aged in specific circumstances for several years. Flavors range considerably between different brewers and their process, but it's generally best for the serious alcoholics wanting to branch out from trying regular nihonshu.
If it's your first time, this is where you'll probably want to start. However there are hundreds of different brands in almost every area of Japan, each with their own flavor profile that often changes year to year. There's also different variants of nihonshu and while you could write a book (of course there are many) describing the nation's favorite tipple, we'll try to summarize it here.
Nihonshu is graded into different categories based on the different rice-polishing ratios, the outer layers of the rice contain more impurities. Futsushu, non-premium nihonshu is less polished and daiginjo is the most polished, usually meaning more expensive prices. There's also ginjo that is a little less polished than daiginjo. You'll also hear of junmai and honjozo, the latter meaning it has had a small amount of distilled alcohol added to it and junmai being purely rice wine.
However although the prices for daiginjo and ginjo might often be more expensive, this doesn't necessarily mean they'll taste better to you, as everyone has their own taste preferences.
Often more important (unless you're already a nihonshu-tasting whizz) are the flavor profiles each kind comes with. These can generally be broken down to two main types, dry and sweet, not too dissimilar to white wine. In fact some nihonshu variants can often taste a little similar to the western-originating beverage, especially towards the sweeter spectrum. That's why if you're completely new to nihonshu, it's often recommended that you try a sweeter tasting tipple first.
To Warm or Not to Warm
Nihonshu along with shochu and awamori can often be served either chilled, warmed or at room temperature. Most of the time a particular brand of nihonshu will have been produced to be served specifically at a certain temperature and bartenders will often know and can recommend how to serve it. You can also say that you want a warm nihonshu and ask which they'd recommend. Depending on the temperature it's served at the flavor profile will often change.
Some of the most famous nihonshu breweries include Hakkaisan, Dassai and Kubota. Chances are most bars will have one of these three on offer and it's a good choice to stick to one of them if you're not too keen on delving too deep into the secrets of sake.
Where to Drink Nihonshu
Walk into any izakaya in the country and they'll have some kind of nihonshu for you to try. If you're traveling around the country look for 'jizake' (地酒) meaning locally-produced sake, which usually tends to be nihonshu. Like wine bars of the west, you'll also find a number of sake bars, especially around Tokyo, that focus on just providing customers with quality nihonshu.
If you're at Tokyo Station waiting to catch a train to somewhere, head to Hasegawa Saketan, they have a wide range of offerings and most bartenders speak enough English to find out what type of nihonshu will suit you. For those with more time then head to Shimomiya towards the west of the city. Their extensive menu has over 200 kinds from all over Japan and is a great way to get to know this regional drink fondly.
If you're passing through Niigata Station you can even find a nihonshu vending machine, which lets you sample small cups of the beverage for just 100 yen.
For the Sweet Tooth
If you find nihonshu is still too strong a flavor for you and are looking for something sweet, we've got you covered. Umeshu is made by steeping Japanese plums in shochu and adding sugar, usually lots of it, giving the drink a sweet and sour taste. You'll also find a similar beverage called yuzushu that's made with the native citrus fruit, and has a taste akin to a cross between a lemon and an orange. Both are rather sweet however and great for those looking for something with a sweeter profile.
Similarly you'll also find momoshu, brewed with Japanese peaches or peach juice. There's also a range of different beverages called 'chuhai'. An abbreviation for shochu and highball, they come in various different flavors but usually some kind of fruit juice mixed with soda and shochu.
Other Japanese Alcohol
It might not be the native drink, but beer is still the number one consumed alcoholic beverage in Japan. Mainly dominated by the top brands of Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo, Japan has also seen a rising interest in craft beer in recent years. While most izakaya will just stock the most popular brands, you'll find more and more bars offering local craft brews from around the country.
If you're in Tokyo and want to try a local brew, head to the Hitachino Brewing Lab at Tokyo Station. Once a rice wine brewery, the company now offers a range of different beers which combine both European and local Japanese brewing techniques to create some interesting tipples well worth a try. Make sure to try their 'red rice ale' or XH beer which is matured in shochu casks.
A couple of hours drive west of Tokyo and you'll come to Yamanashi Prefecture, famous for offering some of the country's most delicious fruits. It's also known as Japan's wine region, with the Kofu basin being the birthplace of Japanese wine making.
Japanese whisky has also taken the world by storm in the last ten years or so, with the most famous distilleries of Nikka and Suntory having been in business for around 100 years. Flavors are similar to Scotch whisky rather than bourbon, although often a little sweeter in taste than its Scottish counterpart. Due to the huge surge in popularity, prices for popular Japanese whisky have sky rocketed however and age-statement bottles like Hibiki 17 and Yamazaki 12 can be difficult to find, even in Japan.
Suntory's Hakushu distillery is a couple of hours drive from Tokyo nestled at the foot of Japan's Minami Alps, along with taking a tour of the facilities, there's also a bar where you can sample rare Suntory drams for highly reasonable prices.