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Must-Try Japanese Alcohol – A Comprehensive Guide

Drinking has become an integral part in many cultures all over the world, especially in Japan. Whether for business or pleasure, any outing cannot be complete without a drink. Every weekend, you’ll be invited to a drinking party whether you’re a college student or working at a company. Life in Japan can sometimes be stressful, so it’s really great to go out on the weekend, get some good drinks and socialize with others. In this blog, you will be provided with a list of Japanese alcohol that you cannot miss trying if you have a chance to visit the Land of the Rising Sun.

Must-Try Japanese Alcohol

1. Sake

Regarding a kind of alcohol that is representative of Japan, we must mention sake. Referred to as Japanese rice wine or Japanese alcohol, sake is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting rice that is polished to remove the bran.

Good sake is produced all over the country, thus finding one to suit your taste shouldn’t be too hard. There are different grades of sake depending on the milling process used on the rice and what additives are used. The production cycle takes about one year, starting from autumn of this year to the next autumn. Japanese people use autumn rice in the brewing process, which begins in winter and ends in the following spring. The sake matures during the summer and is finally bottled in the autumn.

Sake can be served either warm or chilled. Usually, the cheaper varieties are served hot straight into a glass. For more expensive ones, it is served in an earthenware bottle (tokkuri) and poured into small cups (sakazuki).

Japanese alcohol

As a representative of Japan, sake is a kind of alcoholic drink that can never lose its popularity

2. Shochu

Shochu is another popular Japanese alcohol drink. It is typically distilled from base ingredients such as mugi (barley), imo (sweet potato), rice, sugarcane, buckwheat, or shiso which is a leaf from the mint family. Sometimes, other ingredients can include chestnut, sesame seeds, potatoes or even carrots.

Shochu contains 25% alcohol by volume, which is weaker than whisky or standard-strength vodka but stronger than wine and sake. Most commonly, people drink shochu in a mixture with ice and things like oolong tea or fruit juice.

Shochu is widely available in supermarkets, liquor stores and convenience stores in Japan and it is popular among middle-aged men.

Shochu always makes every BBQ party the best

3. Beer

Made from cereal grains, yeast, hops, and water, beer is an alcohol that has become more and more popular in Japan. The consumption of beer among Japanese people has outweighed that of sake since the beginning of the 20th century.

Beer is so popular that it is the first thing people order at an izakaya (Japanese-style pub) even without looking at the menu. When drinkers walk in, you will almost hear they say “Toriaezu biiru” which means “Let’s start off with beer”.

In Japan, you can order nama biru, which is draft beer or bin biru which is a large half-liter bottle of beer to be shared among people at the table. However, it is more common to order draft beer on tap.

Beer is so popular in Japan that it is the first thing to be ordered at any izakaya

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4. Lemon Sour

If you wonder what to drink in Japan and would like something mild, lemon sour or lemon chuhai will be your choice.

This drink is made from club soda, shochu, and lemon and you can even get a whole lemon to squeeze out into your jug. There are some different varieties of lemon sour that you can find in Japan. They are yuzu, grapefruit, sudachi, and shikuwasa. In some izakaya or other eating establishments, you can have pre-mixed or canned lemon sour.

Being a fruity drink, lemon sour is quite sweet. Therefore, it’s a perfect drink for those who have a sweet tooth.

Japanese alcohol

Lemon sour is quite sweet, so it’s a perfect drink for those who have a sweet tooth

5. Umeshu (Plum Wine)

Umeshu, a unique traditional Japanese alcohol, is a kind of wine made by steeping whole, unripe plums in shochu or in some other clear, colorless liquor and adding sugar.

Whether by itself, with ice, mixed with other drinks, or with warm or cold water, umeshu has a sweet and smooth taste. Besides, it also makes a great cocktail.

You can buy canned umeshu in stores or even make your own at home quite easily if you’re willing to wait six months before drinking it!

Making homemade Japanese plum wine is really simple. Watch this video for detailed instructions!

6. Awamori

Awamori is a distilled type of Japanese alcoholic drink originated in Okinawa. Made from long-grain rice, it is famous for having an incredibly high alcohol content, which ranges from 30 to 50%.

If you have ever seen bottles of alcohol in Okinawa with snakes in them, that’s exactly snake alcohol. This snake alcohol uses awamori as its base liquor.

Awamori is very popular in every social gathering in Okinawa.

Every social gathering in Okinawa, Japan cannot be complete without awamori

7. Oolong Hai

Oolong hai, or oolong chahai, is another drink made with shochu. To put it simply, it is similar to lemon sour, but uses oolong tea instead of lemon.

The strong tea flavor of oolong hai can be so nocticeable that it can overpower the taste of mild shochu. Still considered a kind of Japanese alcohol, but oolong hai may be more suitable with tea-lovers.

Being a kind of Japanese alcohol, but oolong hai is more suitable with tea lovers

8. Whiskey Highball

Whiskey highball is a combination of whiskey and sparkling (carbonated) water. It is a popular drink in izakayas and restaurants and can even be found canned in most convenience stores or supermarkets in Japan.

If you drink whiskey highball in a glass, you should mix it with ice to enjoy it at its best.

Japanese whisky highball is a unique combination of whisky and sparkling water that you should definitely try!

9. Chuhai

Chuhai is an alcoholic drink originated from Japan and it is one of the most popular beverages here. The name chuhai is an abbreviation of ‘shochu highball’.

The drink is the mixture of shochu and carbonated water flavored with some kinds of fruit such as lemon, grapefruit, apple, orange, and so on.

It is easy to buy chuhai cans in Japan as they are available at convenience stores and supermarkets. What’s more, these cans are perfect for outdoor parties during cherry blossom viewing season. If you want a freshly made chuhai, you can order it at an izakaya.

Offering a low alcohol content, coming in a variety of flavors and being fairly cheap are three main features that make chuhai a popular Japanese alcohol.

Japanese alcohol

Chuhai is a great option for outdoor parties

10. Yuzushu

The ingredients of yuzushu are quite similar to that of umeshu, but yuzu is used instead of sour plum. The taste of yuzushu is like tangy lemonade with alcohol.

You can drink yuzushu by itself, mix it with ice or other drinks or add some cold or warm water before enjoying it.

Tasting like tangy lemonade with alcohol, yuzushu is also a popular must-try drink in Japan

11. Amazake

Amazake, or sweet sake, is a common hot drink during Japanese New Year.

There are two types of this drink. The first one is made with sake lees and contains alcohol, but its alcohol content is low. The second type is made with rice koji and non-alcoholic. Many children love this kind because it keeps them warm on cold nights, especially on New Year’s Eve.

Amazake is a drink that gives you a lot of nutrients such as vitamin B, folic acid, dietary fiber, and glutamine. Therefore, this drink is the one that you drink for your health.

Amazake is an alcoholic drink that is really good for health thanks to its nutrient-richness

12. Atsukan

Like Amazake, Atsukan is also a popular drink in cold months. It is hot Japanese sake made from rice, koji mold, yeast, and water. This drink tastes somewhat smooth and acidic. Though it technically means ‘hot sake’, there are actually many different temperature levels you can indulge. Whatever temperature you prefer, Atsukan should be on your list of must-try Japanese alcohol.

japanese alcohol drinks

In cold months, atsukan is a perfect beverage

13. Happoshu

Happoshu, also known as low-malt beer, has become more popular recently beacause of the fact that it is much cheaper than regular beer. Made with ingredients like soybeans, corns and even peas, it still gives you a very similar taste to regular beer.

If you want to try something new and still related to beer, “beer-like” happoshu is a Japanese alcohol that would be your choice.

japanese alcohol drinks

With a lower price than regular beer, happoshu has become more and more popular

14. Hoppy

Another version of beer is Hoppy, which is a beer-flavored drink with only 0.8% of alcohol. First produced and sold in Japan in 1948, it is now most available in Tokyo.

There are a few types of Hoppy. However, most izakaya in Japan only offer one or two kinds, White Hoppy and Black Hoppy. If you want to order White Hoppy, you just need to ask for a “Hoppy”. Although Hoppy tastes very much like beer, it still has its own unique light flavor.

Compared to beer, Hoppy has fewer calories and less carbohydrates, so it’s really good for those who are concerned about their health and weight.

japanese alcohol drink

Contaning fewer calories and less cacbohydrates than beer, hoppy is good for those who care about their health and weight

15. Red Eye Cocktail

Red Eye Cocktail also lies in the list of worth-trying Japanese alcohol.

This drink is often made with a combination of beer, tomato juice, and optionally lemon juice. Other versions of it can have a raw egg and vodka added. A canned version of red eye cocktail in Japan is happoshu with tomato juice and you can drink itself cold in a glass.

japanese alcohol drink

Drinking Etiquette In Japan

When drinking alcoholic beverages, it is a good manner to serve one another rather than serving yourself. You should periodically check your friends’ glasses and top them up before they are empty. If someone wants to serve you, you should drink to make room in your glass if it is full, hold it up for the person while they pour, and then take at least one sip before putting the glass down.

At the beginning of a meal or drinking party, you should not start drinking until everybody at the table is served and the glasses are raised for a toast, which is usually “kampai”.

It’s unappropriated to get drunk in some formal restaurants, but the same is not true for other types of restaurants such as izakaya, as long as you do not bother other guests.

Conclusion

After reading this blog, hopefully, you have all known what you should drink in Japan. If you have ever tried Japanese alcohol before or if you have never done that, feel free to share your experience. Which one do you want to try the most among the list mentioned above? What type of alcohol sounds the most appealing to you?

About Haruto Suzuki

Haruto Suzuki is a senior food and drinks blogger at Question Japan. He has a background in F&B industry and also experience of running his own Japanese restaurant in Tokyo for over 10 years. Therefore, he has a great knowledge of Japanese cuisine. So if you want to discover Japan through its unique traditional cuisine, Haruto Suzuki’s blog will be a great source of information for you.