Photo:Tatsuo Yamashita on Flickr

More Than Just Sake: A Tour of Japan’s Unusual Alcoholic Delights

Anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time will tell you, the Japanese love a good drink. “Nomikais” or drinking parties, to give them their loose English translation are a frequent occurrence for most company workers in Japan. Indeed, I am still feeling the after effects of yesterday’s school graduation nomikai as I write this piece, so please excuse any unforeseen spelling or grammatical errors!

Photo: Tatsuo Yamashita on Flickr

For most people new to Japan, the first word that enters your head when I say Japanese drinks is sake. Indeed this very rich and highly flavourful wine, brewed from rice, has been a stable of Japanese drinkers for hundreds of years. However, you’d be surprised at how seldom “Nihonshu” to give sake its correct Japanese title, is actually drunk at a typical drinking party in Japan. Indeed, these days there are several more popular, if perhaps less well known outside Japan, drinks that the locals love to consume.

Photo: hiro kobashi on Flickr

So today, let’s take a look at some of these lesser known, but nonetheless delicious Japanese drinks.

Today I present to you my top 5 uniquely Japanese drinks that you may never have heard of before.

#5 Chuhai

Photo: MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr

For many years now, alcopops have been popular in western countries. The likes of Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Breezer and so on can almost be mistaken for soft drinks, given their sweet and fruity taste. However, these drinks often pack quite a punch and can rival or sometimes even surpass the average beer in terms of alcohol by volume.

In Japan, such drinks have been around for a lot longer though. Go into any convenience store, or supermarket and you’ll find chuhai in all shapes, sizes and flavours.

Packaged in distinctive silver cans, with the pictures of the fruits contained therein on the front, it could be easy to mistake these drinks for fruit sodas such as 7-UP and Fanta, like we get back home.

I must admit, my first encounter with chuhai back in 2005 was a rather embarrassing one. I was taking the shinkansen from Tokyo up to Akita, and, like today, I was suffering the aftereffects of a nomikai. My mouth was so dry, and I thought “I could really do with a nice cold glass of lemonade”

Seeing that silver can emblazoned with lemons, I ordered one from the trolley girl as she passed. What I had was delicious, but it was no lemonade!

On the plus side, I had no problems getting to sleep that night!

The most common forms of chuhai are lemon, grapefruit and apple. However, in recent times more exotic flavours like strawberry, kiwi and mango have also become popular. These drinks provide a refreshing alternative to those who find a cold beer to be less than palatable.

#4 Haposhu. Question: When is a beer not a beer? The answer: when it’s a haposhu.

Photo: Tamori Hideaki on Flickr

This beer imitator has long been popular amongst those in Japan who like the taste of a cold beer, but maybe not the full potency therein. Typically haposhu has an alcohol content of between 3 or 4 percent. Considerably lower than the usual 5.5 percent of conventional beers. The taste is also distinctively lighter and more easily drinkable than some of the stronger beers. However, although it is of lower alcohol content, I would advise against drinking too much haposhu. With the lower price also comes a lower grade of ingredients, hence why under Japanese law it cannot define itself as a beer. These lower quality ingredients can lead to some absolute killer hangovers the next day.

#3 Whisky

Ok, as a proud Scotsman what I am about to say may be considered a form of heresy by some of my fellow countrymen. The Japanese make better whisky than the Scots. There, I said it!

Photo: Jens Wedin on Flickr

When it comes to the finest malts, and the highest quality flavours, Japanese distillers like Yamazaki and Suntory have been streaking ahead of the competition in recent years. For the last 10 years in a row, it is a Japanese malt whisky that has claimed the prize of "World’s Best Whisky". This may shock some you, or at least it will until you have your first taste of a Japanese single malt. To say it is nectar in a glass doesn’t even begin to do it justice. For whisky coinisseurs, I especially recommend the Yamazaki Sherry Cask Single Malt. This delightful drink is undoubtedly one of the finest whiskies you will ever sample. It even won the World Whisky of the Year in 2014.

#2 Japanese Shandy

This is a personal favourite of mine. I’m not sure how it is in other countries, but in Scotland, whenever you walk into a bar and order a shandy you would be presented with a pint that was half beer and half lemonade. The sweet, refreshing quality of the lemonade certainly took the edge off the beer’s harsh hops.

Photo: Moira Clunie on Flickr

In Japan however, shandy is something entirely different. Using ginger ale, instead of lemonade, creates a very crisp and distinctive aroma and taste which, while undeniably delicious is quite different from the conventional shandy. These days, I have to say I prefer the Japanese variant. The ginger ale, whilst negating most of the beer’s harsh and sour elements, is not as sickly sweet as lemonade and makes for an all-round more pleasant drinking experience.

#1 Umeshu

The jewel among Japanese drinks. This sweet liqueur made from fermented plums is a joy to sample. The sweet, and easily palatable taste and the sugary, syrupy consistency make umeshu the perfect after dinner liqueur. If you enjoy the likes of Drambuie, Glava or Amaretto, then Umeshu will be right up your street.

Photo: Austin Keys on Flickr

Just be careful though, behind that sweet, cream soda-esque aroma lies a pretty powerful little drink with an alcohol by volume percentage that can sometimes reach into the mid-20s.

Photo: Jackson Boyle on Flickr

That said....... 一気飲み (bottom's up)! Well a few lines before I.......

Of course as always alcohol is best enjoyed in moderation. However, with such a diverse drink assortment on offer in Japan, one can always be tempted to over-indulge.

Happy Hangover!

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