While Japan is famous for its temples, zen beliefs, natural beauty, culture, arts and people, food and drinks are not to be left far behind. Sushi, ramen, tempura or miso, all have now become worldwide phenomenons and much loved by people from across the globe. And pairing perfectly well with traditional Japanese foods are amazing Japanese alcoholic drinks like sake, shochu, umeshu, chūhai and more! Fermented or distilled, made from rice or barley, sweet-tasting or sour, cheap or expensive, Japan’s alcoholic drinks are available in a variety of choices. To get the lowdown on all this and more, come and take a look at our list of the must-try popular Japanese alcohol drinks.
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Made from the yuzu citrus fruit, Yuzushu is a popular liqueur made by steeping yuzu in sake (Japanese rice wine or beverage) or shochu (barley or wheat distilled alcohol). The liqueur has a distinct citrusy fragrance and the taste is like vodka mixed with mild and delicate lemons. It is usually made by steeping yuzu or adding its juice and rind to alcohol for a few months to a year; it is then aged. Yuzushu is seen on restaurant menus across Japan and when sweetened, it also makes for a refreshing drink. It is a popular winter drink available in many izakayas (Japanese bars) or liquor stores.
Shochu is a distilled spirit and a traditional Japanese hard liquor. It is similar to vodka but distilled from base ingredients like buckwheat, sugarcane, rice, barley or sweet potatoes. It is clear in appearance and its taste depends on the base ingredient used in making it. Due to its high alcohol content of more than 25 percent, it is generally served with ice, soda, cold or hot water, juice or to create cocktails. Many brands of shochu are available at most izakayas, restaurants and liquor stores in Japan.
Mostly sold as ‘Chu-Hi’, chuhai is a shochu highball that was traditionally made by combining shochu and lemon-flavoured soda water. It is now commonly available as a canned carbonated drink that has a low alcohol content of three to nine per cent. Popularly enjoyed in the summer months as a refreshing alcoholic beverage, many brands of chuhai are available in Japan. Flavour varieties like pineapple, lemon, grapefruit, coconut water, peach, plum, etc., along with variations like zero sugar, zero calories, etc.
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Unarguably, the most famous drink of Japan is sake, commonly known to foreigners as ‘Japanese rice wine’. It is not really wine, but an alcoholic fermented rice drink. It is made by a special brewing process similar to beer, where polished rice is fermented to produce alcohol. Sake is available in a variety of flavours and styles like unfiltered, sparkling, etc. and served either warm or cold. Sake is easily available throughout the pubs, family restaurants, stores of Japan and many other countries in the world.
Sweet and sour in taste, Umeshu is also known as ‘plum wine’. As the name suggests, it is made from ume fruit by submerging them (still unripe and whole) in some kind of alcohol like shochu or sake and sugar for a few months. You can enjoy the unique taste of umeshu by drinking it neat, on the rocks or mixing it with hot water in the winter. It is a very popular Japanese liqueur and manufactured by a large number of brands and often made at home too.
Photo is only for illustrative purposes
Momoshu is a Japanese peach liqueur that is made by soaking peaches in alcohol and sugar. It is mostly sweet in taste but lemon juice is sometimes added to it to give it a sour note. It makes for a great base for creative cocktails but is best enjoyed straight-up or with ice. It has about 9% alcohol content and is mostly enjoyed by women. You can buy momoshu at a liquor store in Japan or try it an izakaya.
Another Japanese drink made from fermented rice is amazake. It is a popular winter drink since it is low in alcohol content, generally served warm and is mostly sweet tasting. This rich, creamy and sweet drink is also great when served chilled. This centuries-old drink literally means ‘sweet sake’ and is made by combining steamed rice, water and leftover sediments from the sake extraction process. You can try amazake at street stalls near famous tourist places in Japan or sample one of the many bottled or canned varieties.
Happoshu is a beer-like drink that is very popular in the Japanese market due to its low price point. It is a low-malt beer, with a malt content of 67 per cent or lower, which means that it is technically not a beer and hence, taxed lower than beer. Though many love happoshu, others do not consider it to be ‘real beer’ because of the belief that its flavour is not as good as real beer. Japanese alcohol giants like Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo produce happoshu and it is mostly available in convenience stores and supermarkets.
Whisky, also known as Japanese whiskey, is a blended whisky that is typically produced in Japan. This style of whisky has everything from single malts to fabulous blends. Fine and exquisite whisky is produced at many traditional distilleries in Japan that have won many awards and accolades in the international arena. Though relatively unknown to customers outside the country, visitors should definitely try Japanese whisky in restaurants or izakayas.
A speciality of the island of Okinawa, Japan, awamori is a type of alcoholic drink made from rice using a distillation process. Long grain rice is fermented and then distilled to create awamori using an indigenous black koji mould. It has about 30 to 60 per cent alcohol content and best enjoyed on the rocks, with water or in cocktails. Aged awamori is called ‘kusu’ and you can buy special bottles called 'kara-kara’ for a great experience.
The perfect accompaniments to your sushi, sashimi or shabu-shabu meals, sake, shochu or yuzushu deserve an equal spot on your Japanese itinerary. When in the country, do remember to check out not only the national parks and hot springs, but also our list of must-try popular Japanese alcoholic drinks. Say ‘kanpai’ to good times!
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