While most people know about Japanese sake, Japan actually has many kinds of delicious liquors including shochu and awamori. In this article we will talk about some of Japan's characteristic liquor varieties as well as delicious ways to drink them if you come to Japan.
"Nihonshu" (Japanese sake)
When people talk about Japanese liquors, the standard one that comes up is sake, known in Japan as Nihonshu; its main ingredients are rice, rice malt, and water, and you might have the image of it as a rice wine.
There are many ways to drink Nihonshu, including hot, warm, room temperature, and chilled. Nihonshu that has been heated up in a water bath is called "atsukan," while warm sake that's been warmed the same way but isn't as hot is called "nurukan". You've probably often seen the style of drinking using a sake decanter called "tokkuri" or "choushi" that's poured into a small cup called a "sakazuki" at Japanese restaurants. However, if you heat up Nihonshu, sometimes you lose flavor and fragrance, so many people don't drink high-quality Nihonshu in the atsukan style. At restaurants or drinking places that are very particular about their liquor, they may refuse to serve you Nihonshu in the atsukan style so please be aware of that.
On the other hand, chilled Nihonshu is called "reishu." Depending on the brand, people prefer to drink it reishu or "hiya" (room temperature). You should definitely try Nihonshu these ways if you come to Japan.
For people who aren't satisfied with these standard ways, why not try "hirezake"? Hirezake is warmed sake in which the roasted fin of a blowfish is placed in the cup along with the liquor. It will warm you up nicely and the taste and aroma is exceptional. Restaurants that offer seafood might have it on the menu, so please try it if you find it.
Will you have it atsukan? Or will you try it hiyazake? Please match the different ways to drink Nihonshu with the seasons for an enjoyable experience!
Another standard Japanese liquor is shochu. It's made with various ingredients including rice, wheat, potatoes, soba, and more and it's a distilled liquor like whiskey.
You can drink it in various ways, including on the rocks or diluted with water (called "mizuwari"). In the winter, many people order it diluted with hot water ("oyuwari"), which gives it a special taste. You might also enjoy it mixed with Oolong tea.
There is also a kind of cocktail called a sour, where shochu is mixed with a fruity extract and carbonated water or a clear soft drink. There are many kinds of sours, but if you come to Japan, you should try the umeboshi sour. Umeboshi is pickled plum that has a particularly sour taste, and as it floats in the liquor it falls apart, making it a cocktail that's easy to get addicted to. Now, umeboshi sour and ume sour are two different drinks, so when you order, please make sure that you ask for umeboshi. (Ume is a non-pickled plum.) Another recommended way is to mix it with Hoppy, a carbonated drink that tastes like beer. When you order, the Hoppy bottle and the shochu glass will come separately, so you can mix as much Hoppy as you'd like into your drink. However, please remember that it shouldn't be made 1:1. Depending on the amount of shochu, you should use about half of the Hoppy. When you want a second drink, you can simply order another shochu, but if you ask for a "naka" you'll be able to order the same drink in a more Japanese way.
Shochu is a popular Japanese liquor that comes in many price ranges. Please try it in various ways!
Awamori is a rice-based liquor from Okinawa. While it resembles shochu in appearance, it has a characteristic taste and you'll realize just how different it is once you drink it.
One of awamori's features is that it has a high alcohol content; some brands are more than 80 proof. It's said that compared to shochu, awamori is less likely to leave you with a hangover, so if you try it yourself you might come out with a night of great memories.
While you can drink it the same ways you can drink shochu, such as on the rocks, mizuwari, oyuwari, or with a carbonated drink, here's another recommendation. If you'd like to dilute it with fruit juice, you should try it with shikuwasa, a kind of citrus fruit native to Okinawa. Awamori and shikuwasa is a particularly popular drink in Okinawa.
If you keep awamori stored for a long time, the alcohol doesn't evaporate and it keeps its taste and aroma. Actually, awamori that's been stored away is called "kuusuu" and it's highly prized. In this way, awamori is similar to whiskey or wine. It isn't something you can find very often, so if you find yourself in an establishment that offers kuusuu (古酒) on the menu, don't miss the chance to try it!
Doburoku is a liquor that can be called the origin of Nihonshu. Similar to Nihonshu, it's a fermented drink made of rice and malted rice, but it is completely unfiltered to leave starch and sugar in the mix to create its characteristic cloudy white appearance and sweet taste. It's similar to Korean makgeolli. It isn't often offered at restaurants, but you can buy it at liquor stores, so people who like liquor should definitely look for it.
Also, nigorizake is another drink that's similar to doburoku. Nigorizake is a drink made from rice and malted rice, but unlike doburoku, it's filtered through a rough cloth. It's most often seen in the winter.
When you drink it, you have to shake the bottle well so the sake lees remaining in the drink doesn't settle, but when you do this please mix it slowly and gently. You can drink it chilled, hot, or at room temperature. Some breweries recommend it chilled because it goes down smoother that way.
Amazake is the drink for people who aren't good with alcohol but still want to try a sweet liquor.
While it is white and cloudy by doburoku, like the name says ("ama" or "amai" means sweet), it has a characteristic sweetness and most brands have very little liquor, so you can enjoy it as though you would a soft drink.
Actually, there are many non-alcoholic brands that are sold as soft drinks, so they're not sold at drinking establishments but rather supermarkets, convenience stores, and even vending machines.
Also, many stores near temples and shrines also offer it, and it's perfect to take a rest with some amazake after visiting a few!
Most people drink it hot, but actually cold amazake is also quite delicious. In the summer they sell chilled amazake, so if you see it, please pick it up.
Umeshu, more commonly known as plum wine, is another Japanese liquor, this time made using plums. It's made by pickling unripe plums in alcoholic drinks like white liquor, shochu, Nihonshu, or brandy and adding sugar and other ingredients. Its sweet-and-sourness is very popular with women. In Japan, it isn't uncommon for families to make their own, and each family has their own recipe. If you know people in Japan and they make it, you might be able to taste their home-made umeshu. Of course you can also drink it at restaurants. It's standard to drink it on the rocks, with soda, or oyuwari, but there's many ways to enjoy it. It's delicious with mint leaves, or mixed with juices like acerola cherry or orange. There are also people who drink it with black or green tea. Eating the pickled plum from the container as you drink the liquor tastes great! Definitely try it if you can!
There are many different ways to drink Japanese liquor. If you come to Japan, please enjoy the local drinking customs and variations to your heart's content.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.