While many people recognize sake, not all are familiar with the other Japanese alcoholic drinks such as Shochu, Awamori, Atsukan, Japanese whiskey and many more.
There’s a great variety of Japanese alcoholic drinks, from deep fermented wines to fizzy cocktails and anything in between.
Whether you are looking for a pick-me-up after a long day at work, or just simply want to have a fun night, these Japanese alcoholic drinks can do the job.
10 Must-Try Japanese Alcoholic Beverages
1. Japanese Whiskey
Japan is considered one of the greatest producers of whisky drinks. In fact, the country has 11 major whiskey distilleries with decades of experience. Some of the big names in whiskey brewing are Nikka, Suntory and Akashi.
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Japanese whisky drinks are made using the scotch tradition. It is done by double distilling malted or peated barley, and then aging the drink in wood barrels.
In recent years, Japanese whisky has become one of the top whiskies in the international whisky market. In fact, from 2010 to 2019, American imports of Japanese whisky have grown fifty folds.
Unlike whisky producers in many other countries, Japanese bottlers are not required to mature whisky in Japan to earn the label Japanese whisky. That is why many of their producers blend whiskies from other countries such as Scotland.
Unlike the American ryes and bourbons that have a sweeter flavor, Japanese whisky is smokier and drier.
If you like the taste of this Japanese alcohol beverage, you’ll probably enjoy sipping a Japanese whiskey highball. It is a cocktail that combines whisky and carbonated soda water. A whiskey highball is a classic way to enjoy your favorite Japanese whiskey.
Base ingredient: Malted and/or peated barley
Shochu is a traditional hard Japanese liquor made by distilling different types of grains or vegetables such as sweet potatoes and rice. From those bases, different varieties of shochu are produced including rice shochu, sweet potato shochu, sugar cane shochu and barley shochu among others.
The alcohol content of sochu is between 25% and 37%. As it has a high alcohol content, you can enjoy it in many ways.
You could serve this Japanese alcohol drink straight out of the bottle, on the rocks, mixed with water or soda, or as a base to make fun and fizzy cocktails.
Moreover, those who love to drink shochu enjoy this Japanese liquor by varying the temperature of the water added to it depending on your body condition or the weather.
The flavor of this distilled spirit depends on its main base ingredient and the number of times it was distilled. But generally, it tastes like a cross between whiskey and vodka.
Base ingredient: Different types of grains and vegetables
Sake is one of the Japanese drinks that is widely known around the world. In fact, many consider Japanese sake as the country’s representative drink.
In Japan, sake is a general term for the different types of alcohol. A more specific term for the famous drink is “nihonshu.” This word means “Japanese alcohol.”
Made from rice, yeast, water and koji mold, sake is somewhat smooth and acidic to the taste. As this Japanese drink is less filtered, it has a milky color.
This traditional Japanese alcohol drink is popularly used in making cocktails.
While it is common to hear people calling sake as rice wine, the process of producing this alcohol drink is actually more like beer than wine. Sake is produced by breweries, and there are about 1,800 in Japan.
In Japanese society, it is customary for the newly weds to sip sake from three different bowls. It is a tradition that symbolizes the sharing of sorrows and joys as a married couple.
Moreover, sake is usually served warm but you could also drink it chilled, hot or at room temperature.
If you love drinking sake, you’ll probably enjoy a sip of atsukan or hot sake. Atsukan is available at 120F. There are also hinatakan (86F), hiyakan (59-77F), suzu-bie (59F), hanabie (50F), and yukibie (41F). The general term for all those hot sake drinks is kanzake or okan.
You may have also heard of amazake or sweet sake which is a traditional drink in Japan. While it is made from fermented rice like sake, amazake is alcohol-free.
Base ingredient: Rice
This Japanese alcoholic beverage is made from long-grain Indica rice which comes from Thailand. It also uses a black koji mold that is local to Okinawa.
Unlike Japanese sake which is produced through a brewing process, awamori is through distillation.
Awamori has a stronger but smoother flavor compared to sake. If it is aged more than 3 years, it is called kuusu.
Kuusu has a rich and more mellow taste compared to awamori. Awamori is somewhat comparable to whiskey while kuuso to single-malt scotch.
In many Japanese restaurants, you can order these drinks as is, with water, ice, or as a combination.
Base ingredient: Rice
5. Red Eye Cocktail
This is another must-try alcohol drink especially when you visit Japan.
The red-eye cocktail is typically made by combining beer, tomato juice and optionally lemon juice. There are other variations that use raw egg and vodka.
This Japanese alcohol drink became popular in the 80s with the release of the film Cocktails. However, the Japanese version does not contain eggs unlike in the movie.
The Red Eye cocktails normally use Japanese larger-style beers as they pair well with the acidity and natural sweetness of tomato juice.
You can order this alcoholic drink in a bar that uses tomato juice as a mixer, which is not that common.
Fortunately, there is already a canned version of this beverage. You could drink it as is or out of a can while it’s cold.
Base ingredient: Beer and tomato juice
6. Japanese Beer
There are four major producers of beer in Japan: Kirin, Asahi, Suntory and Sapporo. Those beer manufacturers produce mainly pale-colored light lagers with an alcohol content of about 5.0% ABV.
Japanese beers are immensely popular drinks, and when it comes to consumption, they are far ahead of sake.
If you are at an izakaya or bar, Japanese beer is a great starter. You could order draft beers or craft beers. There are also non-alcoholic beers as well as happoshu which is a low-malt beer.
If you have tried Japanese beer, you might already be aware of how bitter they are.
Beers in the US and Europe tend to be ales as they use malt and barley as a base before undergoing fermentation for a short period of time.
Meanwhile, beers in Japan tend to be lagers. While they also use malt and barley, the process of producing beer is much different.
Lager beers are fermented and produced at a low temperature for a longer period of time. The process results in a much bitter beer with a refreshing aftertaste.
If you love drinking beers, whether straight up beer or draft beer, Japanese beers are worth a try.
Base ingredient: Cereal grains
Umeshu or plum wine is another popular Japanese alcohol drink worth trying.
Umeshu has a sweet and smooth taste but the sweetness depends on the amount of sugar added. If Japanese cocktails are your thing, you could try adding in any fruit or vegetable juices you can find at your supermarket.
Many Japanese bars and restaurants also offer their own varieties of umeshu.
Moreover, if you are buying bottled umeshu, some brands use real plums, and you should see the phrase “Honkaku Umeshu” on the label. Those products that use flavorings instead of real plum don’t have this phrase.
Umeshu that uses real plum is touted for its health benefits such as aiding in constipation.
Base ingredient: Plum, alcohol and sweetener
This Japanese alcohol drink is very similar to plum wine except that instead of plum, it uses yuzu which is a lemon reminiscent citrus fruit.
This Japanese alcohol drink has a tangy taste. Its flavor is comparable to an Italian drink called lemon cello. It can be consumed out of the bottle, with ice, served with warm or cold water, or mixed with other drinks to create a Japanese cocktail.
Yuzushu is one of the few Japanese drinks that you can easily make at home. Preparation time is just about 30 minutes but the waiting time is about 12 months.
To make this drink, infuse yuzu flesh and peel with alcohol and sugar. Age this mixture for about 12 months in a barrel.
Base ingredient: Yuzu citrus fruit
9. Oolong Hai
Another popular drink worth trying when you are in Japan is the Oolong Hai, also known as oolong chahai.
This Japanese alcohol local drink uses oolong tea mixed with a mild sochu such as mugi sochu for a balanced flavor.
Sweet potato sochu and other sochu varieties with strong tastes are not ideal in creating this drink because they will overpower the taste of the tea.
Oolong hai can have a noticeably strong tea flavor that can somewhat overpower the taste of mild shochu.
Base ingredient: Oolong tea
10. Lemon Sour
If it is one of those nights when you feel like drinking something mild, lemon sour might just be perfect for you.
This beverage is one of the popular drinks in Japan because of its refreshing taste. It is made by combining club soda, lemon and shochu.
There are different varieties of lemon sour such as grapefruit, yuzu, sudachi and shikuwasa. While it is a cocktail drink, they are also available in cans.
In Japan, lemon sours are a classic standby order at Japanese bars or Japanese style pubs, especially during warmer months. You can also find lemon sour cans for sale at convenience stores.
Base ingredient: Club soda, lemon and shochu.
Generally, there is no one best Japanese alcoholic beverage as any of them can be the best depending on your preferred taste and strength of the drink.
That being said, there are best drinks depending on the season. For example, during colder months, the best are sake, yuzushu and umeshu. While during summer months, if you like to drink alcohol beverages, lemon sour is a great choice.
Many Japan-made alcoholic drinks are available in the US and other countries around the world. You can buy them online or at an Asian supermarket.
In particular, sake and whisky are very popular in the US so you’d probably see them in your local supermarket.
Most restaurants in the country serve complimentary Japanese green tea with meals. If you are in Japan, and Japanese green tea is weak for you, you could also order sake and other alcoholic drinks. But if you aren’t sure what to order, sake goes well with most Japanese cuisines.
Alcoholic drinks if taken in moderation have some health benefits. According to Mayo Clinic, the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption include:
Possibly reducing your risk of developing serious heart issues
Possibly reducing your risk of ischemic stroke where your arteries to the brain are blocked or narrowed
Possibly reducing your risk of diabetes
The same article published by Mayo clinic listed some risks associated with drinking alcoholic drinks excessively. These risks include certain cancers, pancreatitis, stroke and heart muscle damage.
Japanese people love sake and other beverages that contain alcohol. They enjoy different Japanese drinks depending on the season of the year.
Depending on how strong you want your drink to be, from light to strong, there is a drink that should suit your taste.
With so many alcoholic drinks to choose from, it can be difficult to tell what these drinks are made up of or what their taste is like.
We have rounded up some of the best alcoholic drinks in Japan so that if you are curious to try one, you can have an idea on which one to pick.