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Let’s say you’re visiting Japan, and you’re over the age of 20, the country’s drinking age. You sit down at a bar, izakaya, or restaurant with some friends and the moment of truth comes—what do you order?

Everybody has their own favorite drink, but when you’re dropped into a country with a thriving drinking culture, you might want to reassess your options and see what’s common to drink in Japan. After all, the bartender might not know what you’re talking about when you order an Appletini.

Fortunately, there are lots and lots of options for you when you’re drinking in Japan. You might not recognize all of them, but they’re largely accessible and enjoyable to drink. Let’s take a look at some of the drinks you’ll encounter when you’re drinking in Japan:

Beer

Beer is the safest drink to get in Japan for a couple different reasons. It’s one of the most popular beverages around the country—one of the most common phrases you’ll hear in bars and restaurants is 生ビール, or “draft beer”—and secondly, Japanese beers are relatively mild and easy to drink. Japanese beers have been renowned as relatively light and dry for decades.

asahi-super-dry

The big names in Japanese beer (and combatants in the Great Japanese Beer War) are Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo. Microbreweries are peppered throughout the country, but you’ll be able to find at least one of the big names pretty much anywhere in Japan.

Verdict: Recommended.

Third-Category Beer

In order to avoid Japanese taxes on malts, one of the main ingredients in beer, companies have produced cheap beverages with little to no malt content. These beverages, known as “happoushu” (発泡酒) and “third-category beer” (第三のビール), have emerged as a cheap alternative to beer.

A while back Néojaponisme did a great video about tasting some of the more famous third-category beers:

Unless you’re really pinching pennies, it might be best to avoid this type of beverage. They’re definitely inexpensive, but these beverages are to beer as Jolly Ranchers are to actual fruit. The tradeoff of taste for price is a big turnoff of this “fake beer.”

Verdict: Avoid if possible.

Sake

Most people have heard of sake, but what they don’t know is that sake isn’t actually called sake in Japan. In Japanese, sake just means “alcohol,” so ordering sake in Japan will probably get you some blank stares.

sake-barrels

Instead, it’s called “nihonshu” (日本酒), which literally translates into “Japan alcohol.” If you’ve only had sake outside of Japan or have only drank the cheap One Cup stuff, then you should definitely check out the varieties available in Japan.

For more about sake, read our earlier post, 4 Types of Sake and How to Enjoy Them.

Verdict: Recommended.

Whisky

I won’t go too much into detail since we already did a post about Japanese whisky, but the Japanese whisky industry in Japan is flourishing and growing bigger every year. Many of the big beer producing companies—Asahi, Suntory, etc.—also have their own whisky labels as well.

hibiki-whisky

Whisky in Japanese generally takes after Scottish whisky rather than the American-style whiskeys some of you might be used to. This might be a concern for those with discerning palates, but it probably doesn’t make a difference for 90% of people.

The terminology is a bit different in Japanese, but pretty similar. “On the rocks” is “rokku” (ロック), and “neat” or “straight” is just (ストレート).

Verdict: Highly recommended!

Highballs

In Japan, a highball (ハイボール) is a mixture of whisky and soda water that’s become surprisingly popular. A lot of people don’t like the taste of straight whisky, and whisky (especially some of the higher end Japanese whiskies) can be very, very expensive. Highballs fix both of these problems by cutting the whisky with a cheaper liquid, soda water.

highball

Unfortunately, I think that the result is the worst of both worlds. A highball doesn’t have the interesting mix of flavors that a more complicated cocktails have, and it blows away any sort of subtle flavors the whisky might have with a blast of carbonation.

But if you’re looking to get some whisky down the hatch quickly and cheaply, a highball is a good solution to that.

Verdict: Not recommended.

Shochu

Shochu (焼酎) is a Japanese drink that’s usually made from a grain (like barley or rice) or other ingredients like sweet potatoes, chestnut, or even brown sugar.

shochu

On its own, it’s not terribly exciting; it’s a little stronger than sake, but not as strong as hard liquor. People will drink shochu on its own, but more commonly you’ll see it as part of a mixed drink, either in chuhai (see below) or in “sours.”

Verdict: Take it or leave it.

Chuhai

You might have already read our love letter to chuhai from earlier this year, but if you don’t know about chuhai, here’s the lowdown:

chuhi

Photo by Brian Adler

“Chuhai” (チューハイ) is a combination of the words shochu and highball. It’s basically shochu with soda water added, although chuhai tends to be flavored more than straight highballs.

Verdict: Recommended.

Soju

Not to be confused with shoju, soju (ソジュ) is originally a Korean drink that’s been making a lot of headway in Japan. In addition to the similar-sounding names, soju has a lot in common with shochu; the taste is very comparable and the two drinks can be made out of lots of different ingredients (although rice is most commonly used).

jinro-soju

Photo by L. W. Yang

Shochu and soju are consumed the same way as well: it’s sometimes drank straight or on the rocks, but also quite frequently mixed with soda or juice.

Verdict: Take it or leave it.

Wine

Wine has a lot of cultural significance in other parts of the world but for Japan—a country that enjoys wine, but doesn’t produce much of its own—it’s a beverage that’s not very popular outside of a small demographic.

Maybe once Japan makes its own version of Sideways, wine will become as popular as it is with middle-aged rich Americans.

Verdict: Indifferent.

Umeshu

Umeshu (梅酒) is a unique kind of Japanese plum liqueur. that can be served like whisky or any other straight liquor: either neat or on the rocks.

umeshu

Photo by Jun OHWADA

Different types of umeshu have a range of flavors, from sour to very sweet. I wasn’t a big fan of the kinds of umeshu I’ve had in Japan; at its worst, I thought umeshu tasted like sweet cough syrup. I guess this is how Japanese people feel when they drink root beer.

Verdict: Not recommended.

Awamori

Unique to the southern Okinawa region of Japan, awamori (泡盛) is a very strong, distilled liquor made out of rice. While the alcohol content of awamori can be as low as 25%, it can be much, much higher, peaking at around 60%.

awamori

Photo by ayustety

Awamori is definitely an acquired taste, and can really catch you off guard if you’re not expecting it. Did I mention that it’s strong? It’s really strong.

Verdict: Where am I?


Hopefully, this list gives you some idea of what your options are when you go drinking in Japan. Of course this list is far from complete, as any comprehensive list would probably take up a whole book; but this should cover some of the most options available to you.

So enjoy yourself, but make sure not to miss the last train. 乾杯!

Wallpapers and Coloring Sheet

Want a desktop background of our chubby li’l drunk salaryman? Are you a parent who wants to give their child a cool coloring sheet—or better yet, are you a full-grown adult who wants to do some coloring? Our amazing illustrator Aya has you covered!

Wallpaper (1280×800)
Wallpaper (2560×1440)

Coloring activity sheet

  • Cheru

    What? Umeshu’s, like, the best thing on that list, and one of the only drinkable things on it.

  • DAVIDPD

    As long as baijiu stays in China, everything will be okay.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Pshhhhh umeshu. Bourbon and scotch is the way to go.

  • Scott Lavigne

    I agree, that it’s good, but all the things on here are drinkable! The third-malt beers maybe not. But the rest is!

  • Scott Lavigne

    I’ve never in my life seen Soju on the rocks. Chilled or room tempature shots, or mixed into cocktails, or mixed with beer. But never ever have I seen it on the rocks.

  • Galathys

    I LOVE Umeshu ! I can’t understand why you wouldn’t recommend it, it’s one of the sweetest drink on the list, and thare are lot of different types.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I’m not a fan of sweet beverages, but to each his own :)

  • greedence
  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I will take awamori, because it’s the only thing strong enough to take my mind off of all these ghosts. All these political ghosts. They won’t stop moaning. About taxes.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    oOoooOoOOOOOoooo capital gaaaaaaaiiiinnnnns!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Not sure how that T slipped its way in there. Fixed, thanks for pointing it out!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I’m not too much into alcohol, but I love umeshu! ^___^
    Although I’m German I don’t like beer. I heard from others that the Japanese beer is way too weak and tastes more like water than like beer, but as I don’t drink it, I don’t know.

  • Jan Moren

    The umeshu you get in convenience stores and cheap izakayas is usually crap. Intensely sweet, with only a vague ume flavour. It’s usually not even made with whole ume, but some combination of juice extract and synthetic flavourings.

    We make our own umeshu each year. Just alcohol, sugar (just white or also with brown) and whole, good quality ume. It’s drinkable after a year, but really blooms after three years of storage. My favourite is with brandy as base alcohol, though awamori works really well too. Here’s an old post of mine with the brandy based recipe: http://janneinosaka.blogspot.jp/2009/06/umeshu.html

  • John

    Yeah, cheap umeshu is the worst.

  • Andrew Haddow

    Whiskey is my beverage of choice here in NA so I would love to try some Japanese whiskeys.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    And for that matter, who IS that mysterious alpaca? By the end of the article, it had suddenly disappeared.

  • ren

    Totally agreed with everything in the beginning, then by the highball/shochu, I disagreed with nearly every verdict from then on.

  • google

    I love cow piss

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Then you’ll love happoushu

  • Kasma88

    Great post! I’m heading to Japan for a month over the summer and, as a big whiskey fan, I can’t wait to try their brands. Plus, you guys love of Chuhai has definitely peaked my interest!

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    The highball section is the shocking plot twist where the story takes an unexpected turn.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi
  • http://foxibiri.tumblr.com/ foxibiri

    bought the biggest, pinkest, most kawaii bottle of umeshu for this years otakon! kanpai!!!

  • Genkakuzai

    I LOVE soju and umeshu. However, both are most definitely something of an acquired taste. I liked neither in the beginning, but then again, who likes whiskey on their first attempt?