Drinking is a significant part of the Japanese culture, whether you are drinking sake made in a generations-old brewery, a regular drink from the store, or a high-end award-winning hard to buy whisky. Japanese, just like a lot of people in the world, have been having alcoholic drinks since time immemorial. Modern Japan is known for being strict in aspects of life like social interactions but is open as far as their drinking culture is concerned.

Here are some of the most popular Japanese drinks:

1. Sake/ Nihonshu

Sake means alcohol in Japan and can be used to refer to any type of alcohol. However, to avoid confusion, Nihonshu is the rice wine that many Japanese visitors call sake.

Nihonshu is made using water, rice, and koji (aspergillus oryzae), which is a special variety of mold used for fermentation. Normally, the drink is colorless and clear, with a little sweet taste and scent.

The quality of water, type of rice, and strain of koji used in making the drink determine the end flavor. The techniques and environment used during the brewing process also determine the quality of the end product.

The rice used is usually an inedible type, thick, and has a nice starchy core to help with fermentation.

Nihonshu, with an alcoholic volume of 15-20%, has the highest natural alcohol volume since many of the other alcoholic drinks are made using brewer’s alcohol to increase the ABV.

It has a variety of tasting notes and taste profiles, which are determined by the percentage of the rice grains milled.

Normally, it is served cold or at room temperature, but you can have it warmed during the winter.

The heating process has additional benefits to the drink because it opens up its aromatics. It is usually served in glass, metal, or ceramic decanters known as tokkuri and then poured into small cups called ochoko.

There are different types of nihonshu, depending on their ingredients;

  • Futsu: The word means ordinary, and this type of drink is brewed with no special designation, and the rice used has 30% of the grains polished off.
  • Honjozo: This type of nihonshu has brewer’s alcohol added to it during fermentation.
  • Junmai: Unlike honjozo, junmai is made with only rice and koji, and no brewer’s alcohol is added at any part of the process.
  • Daiginjo: This one is made with rice grains that have 50% of them polished off.
  • Ginjo: Ginjo-shu is made using rice whose grains are 40% polished away.
  • Nigorizake: This type of nihonshu is popular in Western Japan, and it is unfiltered sake, which may have koji rice, normally looks cloudy, and is sweeter than all the other nihonshu varieties.
  • Namazake: This is unpasteurized sake, which has to be refrigerated lest the aroma and taste may change over time.
  • Shinshu: This is nihonshu that is usually brewed, shipped, and may be consumed in one year.

2. Shochu

Until recently, Shochu was hardly known beyond Japan’s shores. However, it is growing increasingly popular, not only in Japan but globally, and it is sometimes referred to as the ‘vodka of japan.’

Shochu is distilled liquor that is either distilled once or several times, and it has an alcoholic content of 20-35%. Its main ingredient is one among several types of starch (barley, rice, brown sugar, sweet potato, buckwheat, etc.).

It is colorless and clear and has a specific smell and taste depending on the main ingredient. The source of starch used determines the end product’s flavor profile, which is why it is normally categorized depending on its main ingredient:

  • Barley shochu: Mugi
  • Rice shochu: Kome
  • Brown sugar shochu: Kokuto
  • Sweet potato shochu: Imo

Besides starches, shochu can also be brewed from different Japan’s citrus fruits like yuzu (a very aromatic and slightly sweet reminiscent of lemon) or sudachi (somewhat bitter Japanese lime).

Different Japanese regions are known for different types of shochu, like Tokushima for sudachi shochu, Kagoshima for sweet potato shochu, and Okinawa for rice shochu.

The most common way of enjoying a glass of shochu is either straight or on the rocks, or you can sometimes drink it in hot water (oyuwari). The hot water not only makes it comfortable to drink during cold seasons, but it also enhances its subtle taste notes.

3. Umeshu

This is the most popular and common Japanese alcoholic drink, and its main ingredient is steeping Ume fruit. The fruit is mixed with alcohol, for example, shochu or nihonshu, and a sweetener like sugar is added to the mixture.

It has an amber color, similar to that of whiskey, and a sweet, refreshing, smooth, fruity taste, which many call dangerous because it’s easy for you to take too much of the drink. Many people make it at home because it’s the only legal fruit liquor they can make at home.

In restaurants and pubs, umeshu in soda water (umeshu sour) and umeshu on the rocks are some of the common ways to enjoy their umeshu. You can also have it with cold or warm water.

4. Beer

Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan and comes in many varieties; Asahi, Yebisu, Sapporo, Kirin, Orion, Suntory, etc.

It was first introduced in Japan by Dutch merchants in 1603-1867, which was the Edo Period in Dejima, but the Japanese only tried the beer in the late 1800s. The first brewery in Japan opened in 1870, but it was by an America. It was until 1872 that a Japanese-owned brewery started.

If you want a go-to drink around japan, it is recommended you go for a beer, especially if you are in an izakaya, where the phrase ‘let’s start with a beer’ is commonly used.

You can either ask for a nama biru, which is a draft or draught beer, or a bin biru, which is a big bottle of beer, often half a liter, sheared by people around a table.

Just like many places globally, beer is made using cereal grains as the main ingredient, water, yeast, and hops. You can find non-alcoholic beer or a low-malt almost beer called happoshu, which is a cheaper alternative to real beer.

5. Wine

While japan may not be among the countries that come into mind when you think of wine, two of their native grapes, Muscat Bailey A and Koshu, are recognized and approved by the International Organization of Vine and Wine.

Just like beer, Japan did not start making wine on their own, but it was as a result of western influence. The first Japanese attempt to make wine was by two young men in Kofu who used food grapes and sake brewing equipment.

Wineries started springing up, with people going to France and other countries to learn the craft. After the Second World War and Tokyo Olympics in 1964, wine culture in Japan started gaining popularity.

Because of the sweetness of the domestic Japanese grapes, their wine falls more on the sweeter side. The pale purple Koshu grapes produce an almost fruity bouquet resembling peach. Wines made from this grape are known to perfectly match Japanese cuisine.

On the other hand, the Muscat Bailey A grape is a hybrid developed to adapt to the country’s climate. They have a sweet taste similar to that of grape juice but can be blended and aged to develop more full-bodied wines with different flavors.

6. Whisky

Whisky, like beer, started to become popular in Japan during the late 1800s, but it was not until 1924 that the first Japanese distillery was opened (the Suntory distillery) in Yamazaki by Taketsuru Masataka and Torii Shinjiro, who are considered the founders of Japanese whisky.

In less than a hundred years, many distilleries had been established, like Chichibu, Kirin, Nikka, White Oak, etc. Japanese whisky contains an alcoholic content of 40%. Japanese whisky is mainly enjoyed with water or on the rocks.

It is served in bars and Japanese style pubs. You can also enjoy it as highball whiskey, which is mixed with either carbonated water, carbonated soda, or some fruit varieties.

7. Gin

Being one of the globe’s most common spirit, Gin is also found in Japan, even though its production there just started recently. Japan has, however, taken the liberty to add their twist to the ingredients of their drinks and the production methods.

Japan’s Gin flagship is KI NO BI, which is a dry gin produced in northern Kyoto using Japanese botanicals such as cypress, yuzu, gyokuro tea, bamboo, and Japanese peppercorn. The botanicals are separated, distilled, and then mixed to make the final product.

8. Chuhai / Lemon sour

Chuhai, also called sour, is shochu mixed with soda water and some flavors. The flavors vary from grapefruit juice, lemon juice, oolong tea, umeshu, etc.

If you are a visitor in japan looking for something relatively mild to drink, lemon sour, also known as lemon Chuhai is the best option for you. It was invented in Tokyo and is made from shochu, club soda, and lemon.

You can find it in different varieties like grapefruit, yuzu, shikuwasa, and sudachi. You can find the drink pre-mixed in some restaurants or canned in some eating establishments.