What do you think of when you hear “Japanese alcohol”? Most people probably think of “Sake”. Did you know that the word “Sake” literally means “Alcohol” in general in Japanese?
If you have had the chance to experience the nightlife in Japan, then you know that they have an amazing array of Japanese alcohol that you don’t normally find at the clubs and bars in the western countries.
If you haven’t yet had a chance to explore the city at night,then I recommend you do so, but first let me give you a run down on the different types of Japanese alcohol and common cocktails you are likely to find in Japan. So, when you go out next time in Japan, or when you search for a drink in the supermarket or the convenience store, you wouldn’t be lost!
Nihonshu is the traditional Japanese fermented rice wine. As mentioned earlier,‘Sake’ is actually just the Japanese word for alcohol. What you normally get when you order “Sake” outside of Japan is “Nihonshu”. Nihonshu means Japanese alcohol and it’s the most traditional type of alcohol in Japan.
Nihonshu generally has around 15% alcoholic content and is usually served at room temperature or warmed slightly in order to bring out the delicate flavours of the alcohol and making it smoother to drink. You typically drink the alcohol straight and although similar to wine, it has a unique smell that tends to be sweeter, and a clearer texture.
2. Sparkling Nihonshu
This drink can sometimes be referred to as ‘Japanese champagne’ as it is essentially carbonated Nihonshu, the only carbonated Japanese alcohol, Japanese sake. This is achieved through the fermentation process in which the carbon produced is kept in the Nihonshu instead of letting it evaporate out.
Sparkling Nihonshu is easy to drink, particularly for those who find regular Nihonshu a bit too strong a flavour. Sparkling Nihonshu can be served as a cool refreshing drink in the summer, perfect for a casual afternoon drink. The alcoholic content in Sparkling Nihonshu is on the lower side, sitting around the 5% mark.
Sparkling Nihonshu might not be the most common drink people get, but once you discover it, it will probably become one of your go-tos!
Shochu is another Japanese alcohol that can be made from rice as well as other base ingredients including sweet potato, barley or buckwheat. The main difference between Shochu and Nihonshu is in the process of how it’s made.
While Nihonshu is fermented, Shochu is distilled, meaning that it also has a higher alcoholic content, generally between 25% – 37% and is often used as a mixer to create Japanese cocktails. If you are drinking a single-distilled Shochu, this can be served straight as it will have retained flavours from the ingredients used. Shochu distilled multiple times tastes a bit more like vodka, so I recommend trying it as a mix with other flavours.
Another interesting fact about Japanese Shochu is that it is different to and not to be confused with the Korean Soju. While both products are similar as they are distilled, starch based liquors, there are subtle differences in the distillation process for each and thus they can have differing flavours.
Lemon Sour Shochu mix
This is quite a common alcoholic drink in Japanese bars and clubs and is an example of a nice Shochu mix. It is made of Shochu, soda water and lemon juice. This drink is quite refreshing as it’s not sweet, but has the subtle flavours from the lemon, which can be compared to the flavours of a vodka, soda and lime drink that you might have ordered back home.
Oolong Hai is another Shochu mix, similar to the lemon sour, but is a mix of just Oolong tea and Shochu. The tea flavour is quite prominent in this mix, so it will taste a lot like drinking an unsweetened iced tea, which again is another really refreshing mix. As both the lemon sour and the Oolong Hai are mixes, these beverages will generally be a lot weaker in alcohol content.
This Japanese alcohol is very similar to Shochu but is uniquely made in Okinawa, from a particular long grain of rice known as ‘Indica’ rice. The alcohol is distilled to usually about 30% – 40% and then traditionally aged in clay pots to enhance the flavours. It has quite a strong flavour and is often served straight with ice.
This alcohol is often referred to as Japanese plum wine, but in actuality, Umeshu is a sour plum liqueur made from steeping the sour plums in alcohol with sugar and ageing it to get a delicious sweet beverage. This is one of my personal favourites and can be mixed with other drinks but I would suggest trying it straight, on the rocks first to really enjoy the flavours. The alcohol content is around 10% – 15% and is quite sweet, so if you love cocktails and sweets, this is the drink for you.
6. Japanese Whisky
Whisky is a relatively new alcohol in Japan, however it is extremely popular these days. Japanese whisky is made from distilled malted barely which is then aged in wooden casks/barrels. Two main companies that produce whisky in Japan are Suntory and Nikka, both with ranges of single and blended malt whiskies. The alcoholic content sits around 40% and can be enjoyed on the rocks to really sample the different flavours, particularly in single malt whiskies or as a mix.
The term ’Highball’ just means an alcoholic mixed drink with ice, often Whisky or Shochu based in Japan. In this case the mix was Japanese whisky and soda, which is a commonly ordered drink in Japan. The mix isn’t sweet and has a softer flavour than straight whisky, so if you’re not a huge whisky fan, then this is a good option for you. The alcohol content will also be a lot lower since this is a mix.
Hoppy is a nearly non-alcoholic (0.8% alcohol content) Japanese beverage that looks and tastes very much like beer, just without as much froth as a typical beer. Hoppy is actually distilled rather than brewed like normal beer and tends to be a bit healthier and cheaper to buy. It is often used as a mixer with other drinks in Japan and is a good alternative if you love beer but need to cut down on alcohol and/or carbs.
Obviously this is just a small list of all the possible alcoholic mixers you can get in Japan. However, this should give you a good base to start you off for a night out.
Go out, be adventurous and try some of the drinks mentioned and if you need help navigating Tokyo’s bars and clubs, check out our other blogs for good spots to try or download the Flip Guide app to help customise your night!