You’ve made your way to and from the train. You found the restaurant in a sea of crowded shops and dense, unreadable signage. You’ve spoken to the waitress, and you’ve memorized your order. You’re ready to have your first real meal in Japan, but then the comes the question that completely slipped your mind. “Nani ka onomimono ikaga desu ka?" Would you like anything to drink? Completely blindsided, you fumbled through the menu only to come up empty handed. It’s an experience anyone who’s sat in a Japanese restaurant can empathize with. In a foreign country full of unique and fantastic choices, what should you drink? Here are six of the most popular alcoholic drinks in Japan, guaranteed to satisfy both your thirst and your desire for something new and unique.
Shochu is the most popular Japanese drink you’ve never heard of. Ask anyone outside of Japan what the most popular Japanese drink is, and you’ll almost always get sake as your response. However, that’s definitely not the case. Shochu is a Japanese staple, and the base of some of Japan’s most notorious and delicious alcoholic beverages. Shochu is similar to sake, but instead of being brewed like sake, it’s distilled in a similar manner to drinks like vodka. Usually, shochu is made from barley, sweet potatoes, or most commonly, rice. While often mixed, many drink the 30-40% alcohol drink straight, as it possesses a unique, earthy flavor. Try it if you’re in the mood for something distinctly Japanese.
The Japanese drink everyone’s heard of, and for good reason. It’s an incredibly simple drink, often brewed from rice and fermenting agents, with little flair or fuss. It’s simple, tasty, and pairs well with just about anything, which is why you’ll see it in almost every bar, izakaya, and restaurant in Japan. If you want to come across like an expert, call it “nihonshu" or “seishu," as it’s almost never called sake in Japan. There’s a variety of different brewing styles and flavors, but at the end of the day, any choice is a good one. If you’re in the market to buy for yourself, aim for something bottled within the last year that’s over 50 Yen per ounce.
There’s nothing simpler than a good beer, and Japan certainly goes above and beyond when it comes to this classic favorite. It makes up about a third of all alcohol consumption in Japan, and for good reason. Few countries match or beat Japan in sheer variety. However, most of the time, you’ll be drinking a beer from one of the Big 4: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, or Suntory. While you can find a variety of different flavors and styles, the most popular is malt beer, hands down. All have great flavor and long brewing traditions, but everyone has their favorite, and its best to avoid arguing about it; find the one you like best and stick with it.
Shochu isn’t just a staple of Japanese alcohol, it’s a base for some of their most iconic drinks. Arguably the most famous is umeshu, a drink made by steeping ume (Japanese plums) in sugar and shochu over long periods of time. It produces a uniquely tart and sweet drink that’s become a staple of Japanese drinking. It’s a part of cocktails, mixed drinks, and often enjoyed on its own. Umeshu might be the most delicious entry in this list, and pairs well with fish, chicken, and most foods common in the Japanese diet. Also, if you’re looking for a great wine opener, read this article.
Umeshu isn’t the only drink based on shochu that’s extremely popular in Japan. A lighter and slightly sweeter drink is chuhai, a drink resulting from the combination of “shochu" and “highball." It’s extremely sweet, and often misleading, as its taste betrays its sometimes high alcohol content. However, chuhai is popular for more than just its taste. It comes in an extremely wide variety, with flavors ranging from fruits to seasonal entries, like cherry blossom. Some varieties are extremely low in alcohol content, making them a great choice for light drinkers or simply drinking on the walk home from work, which is completely legal in Japan. Chuhai is one of Japan’s most iconic drinks, at since it’s bottled in cheap 12 oz. cans, you can indulge yourself with very little commitment.
A decade ago, if you told anyone in Japan they’d be famous for their whiskey (world champions, in fact), you’d be politely laughed at. After taking the crown of world’s best whiskey in 2014, however, Japan has taken pride in its booming whiskey industry. Even though they’re popular for their whiskey now, it’s always been a classic drink in Japan. Whiskey has a storied and prolific history in Japan, and still makes some of the best in the world. For a truly high-class experience, treat yourself to a glass of Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask, the winner in 2014’s World Whiskey awards. Other great choices are Fuji-Gotemba Distillery’s Single Grain, Suntory’s Hibiki, or Venture’s Chichibu Whisky Matsuri. All are esteemed award winners, and all will give you an experience you’ll never forget.
Hopefully, with this list, you’ll never be caught unprepared when asked the dreaded “what would you like to drink?" question while dining in Japan. I don’t personally endorse trying all of these in one go, or else you’ll hardly remember your trip, and you’ll spend the entire flight home detoxing from alcohol. Many of these can even be found at your local Asian grocery store, and taste just as good as they would at a restaurant in Osaka or Tokyo.