Alcoholic drinks in Japan have a long and rich history. Since ancient times drinking in Japan has always accompanied the food. People will meet at restaurants and izakaya for drinking parties.
The events are seen as a way of strengthening bonds among friends and collogue. Ranging from Beer to Okinawan rice wine and hot sake, let’s look at some of the most popular types of Japanese drinks.
Sake (Rice Wine), Nihonshu
Sake is the general term used to refer to all alcoholic drinks in the country. Sake is only used outside of Japan, referring to rice wine. Nihonshu is brewed using koji mould, water and rice as the main ingredients.
In addition to major brands like junmai and ginjo, there are numerous local rice wines (jizake). The alcohol content of nihonshu is usually around 15 to 20 percent. You can drink rice wine, either cold or hot. Nihonshu is usually served when filtered, but you find the unfiltered version as well.
The popularity of Beer around the world has no escaped Japan. The phrase ‘toriaezu biru’, meaning, ‘Let’s start off with beer’, is common when you go out with Japanese people.
Beer tops the list of most popular drinks in the country and will always be recommended as a starter. Beer, not traditionally a Japanese drink, was introduced to the country by Dutch traders. Beer first landed on an island trading post called dejima.
At the time, Japan was still isolated, and foreigners were not allowed in the country. Japan began importing Beer when the government opened its borders before they began making their own.
Today you can buy Beer from almost all restaurants in the country, with a wide variety to go. You can even find non-alcoholic Beer available as well as happoshu, a low malt beer sold at a lower price.
Shochu is a distilled spirit with its alcohol content ranging from 20 to 40 percent. The spirit was first made around the 1500s in Kyushu prefecture. It is made first by fermenting a mash of koji mould, water and yeast.
After the fermentation crashed, base ingredients are added to the mixture and left to ferment further. The base ingredients include rice, mugi (barley), sugarcane, buckwheat, sweet potato or shiso (a leaf from the mint family).
The flavour of Shochu will depend on the base ingredients used. Mugi shochu has a soft flavour, while sweet potato shochu gives a stronger flavour and can be served warm. Buckwheat shochu gives a mild but somewhat bitter taste, while the sugar cane shochu has a slightly sweet taste. Shiso shochu has a soft minty flavour.
The Okinawa Prefecture version is called Awamori shochu. The main difference is that long-grained Thai-style rice is used in place of short-grained Japanese-style rice. The Shochu also uses a black koji mould indigenous to Okinawa. When sampling Japanese drink, make sure you try Shochu for an unforgettable experience.
Umeshu (Plum Wine)
Umeshu is a unique type of Japanese drink made from a specific kind of ume tart plum. Other ingredients include alcohol such as Shochu or sake and a sweetener like sugar.
Umesh has a fruity, juice-like flavour and aroma which can appeal even to those who dislike alcohol. Umesh is usually served by its self on the rocks or mixed with soda. It has a sweet taste that can be considered dangerous as it easily goes down. Restaurants around Japan offer their unique varieties on Umesh.
Alcohol in Japan is consumed on many occasions, whether you are going out for dinner or an after hour business meeting. When consuming alcohol, it’s customary to serve everyone at the table and not just yourself.
Likewise, if someone wants to serve you, drink all the alcohol in your glass and raise it to receive more. You should take a sip of the drink before you put it down. Getting drunk is not frowned on unless you start bothering other guests and customers.