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The Best Types of Japanese Alcohol You Need to Try
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If it's your first time trying the more traditional types of Japanese alcohol, you'll probably want to start with Japanese sake or nihonshu. Often just called sake outside of Japan, the term sake in Japan actually refers to all alcoholic products. Within Japan it's just called nihonshu which translates to 'Japanese alcohol'.
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 and styles 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.
Types of Sake (Nihonshu)
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 made with rice wine.
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 those 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.
While nihonshu is generally supposed to be drunk young, 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 sake. 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 and want a stronger flavor of Japanese alcohol.
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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.
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Quite similar in terms of 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', similar to koshu.
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. Whether it tastes good or not, we'll let you decide for yourself, but it's certainly a unique taste.
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If you find the above Japanese alcoholic beverages are too strong 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 of yuzu, 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 the sweeter side of Japanese alcohol.
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 are usually some kind of fruit juice mixed with soda and shochu, all delicious and easy to drink.
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Japanese whiskey has taken the world by storm in the last ten years or so, with the most famous Japanese 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 whiskey has sky rocketed however and age-statement bottles like Hibiki 17 and Yamazaki 12 can be difficult to find and an expensive affair, even in Japan.
Suntory's Hakushu distillery is a couple of hours drive from Tokyo nestled in the forest 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 Japanese whiskey for highly reasonable prices.
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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. Yamanashi is also known as Japan's wine region, with the Kofu basin being the birthplace of Japanese wine making. The area is known for Koshu, a grape native to Japan used to make white wines along with Muscat Bailey-A, another local grape used for red wines in the region. While Japanese wine hasn't had a similar surge of popularity as Japanese whiskey, the region of Yamanashi has had a long history for wine-making and you'll find some surprisingly decent vineyards there.