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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 (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.
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.
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:
“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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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！
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