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Alcohol consumption has been part of Japanese culture since its early history. Rice wines (sake), beer and spirits have evolved significantly since their humble beginnings, and so has their place in culture. Some have proprietary meaning, used to accompany specific foods over the course of a meal either to match flavors or aid in digestion. Others are for pure sipping pleasure. Drinking has even become a tool to strengthen business and social relationships, with socially acceptable displays of heightened intoxication.
The Japanese beer market has grown to become the leading alcoholic beverage in the country, with many different styles from light to dark available. Happoshu (“low malt”) is a similar sparkling drink, though produced with less malt than standard beer. Third Beer (Shin Janru or “New Genre”), is a sparkling unmalted beverage, produced from peas, soy or wheat. As for wine, most of the standard grape table wine in Japan is imported, although Yamanashi Prefecture is beginning to show some promise in the local market. Plum wine (Umeshu) has been popular for centuries, served neat, on the rocks, and in cocktails.
Aside from beer, sake, shochu and whiskey are the main Japanese alcoholic beverages that have gained global popularity. The following is a more in-depth look at those categories:
Rice wine is commonly referred to as the catch all category “sake” outside of Japan. It should be noted that the word in Japanese is a general term for “alcohol,” but has come to mean rice wine through the passing of cultures. It is brewed using rice, water and white koji mold, which breaks down the rice enzymes to ferment. There are many different styles (smoky, sweet, milky, clear, sparkling, aged, unaged and combinations thereof), regions (jizake) and producers. There are also different grades of sake, depending on how finely the rice has been milled or what has either been added to it, or in some cases, filtered out (see below). The alcohol content ranges from 10 - 20%. Like most grape wines, sake is harvested in the fall, fermentation occurs during the winter and once finished in spring is either further aged or bottled. Lower quality sakes are often served hot, while those of higher quality are served cold from earthenware bottles (tokkuri) into matching small cups (sakazuki).
Sake is brewed from fermenting bags of rice, set on top of one another to pressure out the juice, and is usually twice pasteurized. The first run, or “head” from the bag is arabashiri. Nakadori sake is produced from the second-third portion of the mash pressing, which some say is the highest quality portion. Sometimes sake is made without piling the bags. Shizuko is the style produced from juice that runs naturally out of fermenting bags with no pressure.
*Nigorisake (nihonsu): unfiltered or lightly filtered, often cloudy in appearance. Sake-philes tend to prefer this one due to its purity of flavor.
*Namazake (namanama): unpasteurized and fresh tasting, but must be kept under constant refrigeration before consumption.
*Akai, akazake: the red sake. It gets its color from the addition of red koji. Very rarely seen outside of the far east.
*Genshu: no added water, higher in alcohol, nuttier in taste.
*Taruzake: cask aged
The degrees of rice polishing are:
50% polished: Daiginjo with distilled alcohol added, Junmai Daiginjo without.
40% polished: Ginjo with added alcohol, Junmai Ginjo without
30% polished: Honjozo with added alcohol, Junmai without
The term for sake produced from unmilled rice is Futsu-shu.
Sake, like wine, is also produced regionally, with different styles and characteristics found in each region, such as Nada, Fushimi, Akita, Fukushima, to name a few. It’s worth exploring different styles and regions to discover favorites.
In general terms, shochu is a distillate made from grain, sugar cane, and potatoes (both sweet and non-sweet varieties), and is most commonly bottled at 50 proof. The variations among shochu are like global spirits themselves (such as rum, vodka and whiskey), ranging between their ingredients, styles, producers and locations. It is typically served as a mixer with juices and sodas, though some styles are fine enough to sip neat. It has its roots in Kagoshima, in the island of Kyushu.
There are two main methods of distilling shochu. The earliest method, dating back to the 14th century, is known as Otsu-rui, (“type B”), or Honraku (“the real thing”). It uses only one round of distillation and only one raw material. These tend to have the most character and fullest flavor, with a handcrafted attention to detail.
The more prevalent style, Kou-rui (“type A”), which came to existence in 1911 and became a formal classification in 1949, goes through several distillations and can be made from a mix of raw ingredients. This style is smoother, more useful for cocktails.
This is another rice-based drink, but unlike sake is distilled instead of brewed. It is indigenous to Okinawa, which is the only prefecture where it’s produced, though it has its roots in Thailand. Another difference from sake is that it is made from long grain rice, while sake is produced from short grain Japonica rice. Awamori is said to be the earliest known alcohol-based drink in Japan. Kusu is the aged form, with a required three years before release.
The Japanese whiskey trend is thought to have started when American Commodore Matthew Perry came to the country in 1853 to negotiate what eventually became the Treaty of Kanagawa (1854) with the emperor. He brought a barrel of American whiskey as a gift, and this was warmly received by those who tasted it.
Small productions of whiskey started from there, but in the mid 1920’s two men laid the foundations that shaped modern Japanese whiskey production. Shinjiro Torii founded Kotobukiya, which became Suntory, the country’s first commercial whiskey and spirits importer. Masataka Taketsuru came on as a distillery executive. He studied distilling in Scotland and consulted with Torii in founding Yamazaki, producing a Scottish style whiskey from cask-aged malted barley for the first time in Japan (the distillery is now owned by Suntory). In 1934, Taketsuru left to found his own distillery, Dainipponkaju, which became Nikka. He also went on to establish Yoichi (now owned by Nikka). Today, these are the two leading Japanese distilleries, among only a handful.
Japanese whiskey is very much akin to Scotch, not only in its use of cask-aged malted barley. There are peated (meaning fermented from peat-roasted barley) and unpeated styles, experiments with different types of casks (sherry, port, bourbon, wine) for ageing, aged single malts and blended whiskies (for information on Scotch production, history and styles, please see Scotland under regions). This continues to be an exciting whiskey category, with some fine releases that have rightfully garnered global acclaim. ~Amanda Schuster
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