Drinking in Japan is serious business. An acceptable and sometimes even mandatory part of Japanese life, laws revolving around drinking are for the most part very liberal in comparison to those of many other countries. Many bars and restaurants have some kind of time-limited all-you-can-drink (nomihodai) option, the majority of convenience stores sell alcohol 24 hours a day, and yes, it’s very possible to buy alcohol from a vending machine. Used to strengthen social ties (particularly among coworkers), and also incorporated into a variety of Shinto-related ceremonies and even traditional sporting events such as sumo, Japan is basically a drinker’s paradise.
In this article, I’ll be going over a few of the most popular choices of alcoholic beverages in Japan – what they’re called, where they came from, and which brands are the most prevalent. (Note: I shouldn’t have to say this, but if you find yourself drinking in Japan – or anywhere else for that matter – please be sure to drink responsibly! Incidentally, the legal drinking age in Japan is 20, and laws regarding drinking and driving are very strictly enforced. Seriously, don’t even take a sip. That goes double if you also happen to be a foreigner.)
For those who thought traditional sake was the most popular form of alcohol in Japan, think again. Beer is king here – in fact, Japan consumes roughly twice as much beer than all other alcoholic beverages combined (nearly six billion litres per year). First introduced by Dutch traders during the Edo period, and popularized further in the Meiji period thanks in large part to the arrival of trained brewers from Germany and other parts of Europe, Japan now has about 200 breweries across the country. Asahi and Kirin, closely followed by Sapporo, and Suntory, are the leading brands, with Asahi’s Super Dry continuously earning the number one spot in terms of sales. All four of these breweries produce mainly pale-coloured light lagers of around 5% alcohol volume, many of which have now been successfully exported worldwide.
Although first reliably documented as being consumed in the 16th century with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries from Portugal, and later begun to be produced locally during the Meiji restoration, most widely-available wines in Japan today are actually imported from the likes of France, Italy, America, and Australia. High humidity levels and an overabundance of rain right over growing season means that Japan is not particularly well-suited to wine production, and so although gaining in popularity – especially among women – wine remains a relatively small industry in Japan, with most local brands being sold as fairly cheap home table and cooking wines. However, Yamanashi prefecture produces a significant amount, from wineries such as Marufuji, Katsunuma Jozo, and Kizan.
Newcomers beware – while mostly known as ‘sake’ outside of Japan, this word is actually the general Japanese term for alcohol of any kind, with ‘nihonshu’ being the most commonly-used term for the refined Japanese rice wine. Also, unlike actual wine which is produced by fermenting the sugar found in grapes, the brewing process of sake is similar to that of beer – although in terms of alcohol volume, sake is typically far more potent, at anywhere from 10 to 20%. While the origins of sake are unclear, references to the kind consumed today (made primarily from rice, water, and koji mold) date as far back as 712 AD, and by the Heian period was regularly consumed both socially and ceremonially. Japan’s sake industry today is actually in decline, although there are still about 1300 breweries dotted over the country and countless local variations. Served either warmed or chilled depending on the season and/or personal taste, a few of the most well-known brands are Juyondai, Isojiman, Hakkaisan, and Michisakari.
Stronger than either wine or sake with an alcohol volume of about 25%, shochu has now overtaken sake in popularity in Japan – particular in Kyushu, where it originated in Japan – although it is nowhere near as popular as sake outside of the country. The exact origin of shochu is unknown, but records show that it was being made at least as far back as the 16th century, and was being produced throughout the entirety of Japan by the Edo period. It looks and sometimes even tastes similar to sake, but unlike sake is a distilled spirit, and can be made from sweet potatoes, barley, or buckwheat as well as rice. While it can also be consumed on its own and served either hot or cold, shochu is more often served mixed with water and ice, oolong tea, or even fruit juice. There are currently over 600 breweries around Japan, although it is still mainly produced in Kyushu, particularly in Kagoshima, Kumamoto, and Miyazaki prefectures. Popular brands include Isami, Murao, Maou, and Moriizo.
Plum wine (Umeshu)
A tart but sweet and syrupy Japanese liqueur, umeshu is made from steeping green and unripe ume fruits (Chinese plum/Japanese apricot) together with sugar, and has an alcohol content of 10 to 15%. The specific type of ume used is said to have been originally introduced from China sometime prior to the Nara period, when it was used for medicinal purposes. Today, umeshu is occasionally mixed with green tea, but is more often served on the rocks or else combined with tonic or soda water. Easily found in 350 ml cans as well as in larger plastic cartons in most supermarkets and convenience stores, commonly served in most bars and restaurants, and legal to make at home, umeshu is a popular choice among people who dislike most other forms of alcohol. Though it can be served hot in the winter, it’s generally preferred either chilled or at room temperature. There are over 200 brands of umeshu throughout Japan – many sake breweries also produce their own umeshu – but Choya can be found just about anywhere, as can Takara.
Another sweet, fruity drink, chuhai is traditionally made from shochu and soda water and flavoured with lemon, although some brands use vodka rather than shochu, and there are now a large variety of flavours available including lime, grapefruit, orange, green apple, grape, and peach. The drink appeared shortly after World War II, when alcohol was in short supply; unlike whisky, shochu was inexpensive and could be distilled from a variety of ingredients that most Japanese homes were likely to have on hand. As with umeshu, premixed cans are a common sight today in convenience stores and supermarkets and are also served at most bars and restaurants. Alcohol content can vary greatly; the percentage of chuhai sold in glasses in restaurants is often relatively low, but canned chuhai is more likely to be 8 or 9% in alcohol volume. Kirin, Suntory, and Asahi produce many of the more popular chuhai brands – one of the most prevalent of these is Suntory’s Strong Zero, which is not only sugar-free but also cheaper than beer.
Question of the post: Do you have any favourite Japanese types of alcohol and/or brands?