Drinking Japanese Sake and other Tipples
In an earlier blog post “Introduction to Sake: 3 Steps to Drinking“, we offered some practical advice on choosing a great sake to drink. Today we talk more generally about a great Japanese pastime – drinking. We will delve a bit more into sake’s history and discuss some of the other beverages and customs popular among Japanese.
Japan’s First Fermentation – A Brief History of Japanese Sake
Sake has been in production for over 2000 years, although it has roots in China that go back twice that length of time. It is made with fermented rice, which has led to sake gaining a reputation as “rice wine.” However, the process of making sake is actually much different than the process of making other alcohol.
First, the rice is polished and stripped of bran; from there, it is soaked and cooked in water. Traditionally, villagers would chew up rice and nuts and throw the mixture into a shared tub where the rice mash would be fermented. Later, this element of the process was removed and saliva enzymes were replaced with fungus and yeast.
Today, sake is enjoyed by friends and relatives all over the world. If you are looking to get into sake or you have already been enjoying it and want to learn more about the drink, it is important that you understand what to expect when you read the bottle. While much of what you will find on a sake bottle will probably be written in Japanese, it is still possible to learn enough to get a fair grasp of what you are drinking, even if you do not have an understanding of the Japanese language. See our 3 Steps to Drinking Sake blog.
What about Shochu?
Another drink that is very popular in Japan but isn’t as well known as sake globally is shochu. Unlike sake, shochu is a derivative not of rice, but typically of either sweet potatoes (imo-jōchū”), wheat or barley (“mugi”), black cane sugar (“kokuto”), and rice (“kome”). Although many people refer to it as Japan’s version of vodka since it is usually clear in color, shochu is usually around 25% ABV, which is a bit less than the standard alcohol content of average vodka. Also unlike vodka almost all shochus have a unique and different flavor.
Shochu is distilled throughout Japan, but most popular in the south in a region known as Kyushu. There shochu is the preferred drink of choice, rather than sake. Like sake, shochu will usually have its ingredients, the specific type of products used in the brewing process, and the alcohol content of the bottle listed on the label. However, since it is a product that is comparable in taste to spirits like whiskey and vodka, it shares many label elements with these alcohol types. You will often see ingredients like sweet potatoes and wheat listed on the label, as well as the net volume of the bottle and its alcohol by volume percentage. Shochu bottles will often come with graphics or artwork on the label as well, to make it more attractive to the eye.
Etiquette for Popular Japanese Drinks – Drink it Cold
It’s great to know how to read the labels on your favorite Japanese drinks, but you should also understand how to enjoy them in the proper fashion. Popular belief has led to many people believing that sake should be served warm. While this used to be the case, the majority of newer types of sake produced with modern brewing techniques will see their flavor profiles damaged if they are served hot. The best way to determine exactly at what temperature you should serve your sake is to follow the advice of the maker or bartender or your own personal preference. If in a bar or restaurant, the proprietor may ask you which you prefer, “hiya” meaning cold sake, or “atsukan” meaning warmed sake.
When drinking sake or any other alcohol with others in a group, it is considered bad etiquette to pour your own. Instead, each person in the group is expected to refill each other’s cups. This is a gesture of politeness and respect that helps strengthen the bond between friends and family members. Sake is consumed from small cups into which the sake is poured from a larger serving vessel, known as tokkuri. This is one of our favorite customs. You have to stay alert and have friends, otherwise you won’t drink much!
As for shochu, there are a few ways to commonly consume the drink. Some few hardy souls drink it straight, but much more commonly though on the rocks (“roku”). Also in Japan, it is often consumed with a bit of hot or cold water or cold tea, and also frequently mixed with fruit juice and soda water, similar to whiskey and vodka. Afficianados prefer it straight or on the rocks to experience the unique and usually very different flavor of each. Even among shochus made from the same ingredient (such as sweet potato) almost all have a highly different flavor profile.
Coming to Japan means more than just seeing the sights; for best vacation results, you should immerse yourself into Japanese culture, including the food and drink commonly consumed there. Shochu and sake are two of the most common Japanese drinks consumed amongst friends, during meals, or while celebrating. If you demonstrate a bit of knowledge and interest in these two beverages, your Japanese counterparts will likely be quite surprised and most definitely pleased and ready to join you in the fun traditions of Japanese drinking.
Other Popular Drinks
Just be forewarned when you visit Japan, that Japanese do enjoy their tipples. Pretty much anything you find globally you will also find in Japan with wine and beer being hugely popular. Whisky has also recently surged in popularity, driven by Japanese distillers winning global awards in Scotland, and an advertising blitz for the old fashioned hi-ball (“hi-baru”) cocktail. Another popular, local, easy-to-drink, beverage is umeshu [link to other blog post], Umeshu is usually made with relatively neutral shochu into which sugar and ume (Japanese plums) are steeped and aged for several months. It makes for a lovely summer tipple on the rocks or with a bit of soda.
Whatever you enjoy, just be ready, the Japanese love trends and there is sure to be some new (or old) drink in vogue when you visit.