While we certainly won’t scorn a glass of Asahi or Sapporo, it’s all too easy as a tourist, travelling in Japan, to fall into the trap of drinking little besides nama biru (draft beer, literally “fresh beer”). That would be a shame, as Japan offers plenty of unique tipples, as well as craft beers and single-malt whiskies as tasty as anything produced on Earth.
When drinking in Japan, remember that filling one’s own glass is considered rude and filling other people’s is polite; that “kampai” means cheers; and that the Japanese obsession with quality makes this one of the best places in the world to enjoy a drink.
And if you are a bit of a booze nerd, your indispensable guide will be Tokyo-based journalist Chris Bunting’s book Drinking Japan (Tuttle).
Shochu 焼酎and Awamori (泡盛)
Schochu is a catch-all term for distilled spirit in Japan. Barley, rice, sweet potato and other starchy crops can all be made into schocu; it all bears a family resemblance to vodka but is more flavourful and much lower in alcohol — 25% is typical. Mugi means barley, and smoothness of mugi shochu (麦焼酎) probably makes it the best choice for newbies. Awamori is Okinawa’s cousin of shochu; it’s aged for a more complex flavour, and it’s usually stronger than mainland shochu. Whether you’re drinking shochu or awamori, it will usually be served on the rocks in a rather generous helping. Beware.
Where to drink in Tokyo: Hip, standing-room-only bar Buri in the Ebisu ward.
Japanese whisky started as an imitation of Scotch. While the industry continues to ape the great whiskies of Scotland — Hakushu and Yoichi distilleries make whiskies that are peated in the style of Scotland’s Islay region, for example. Japanese whiskies have won an impressive number of international awards in recent years, making the products a prestige category in their own right. The Japanese typically drink blended Scotch with plenty of ice and water, a style known as mizuware. But if you’re sampling some single malts (and you should, starting with Yamazaki), a good Japanese bartender will understand completely if you want your whisky served in the universal connoisseur’s manner: neat, with spring water on the side so you can add a tiny splash to taste.
Where to drink in Tokyo: We won’t dispute Chris Bunting’s assertion that cozy little Shot Bar Zoetrope in Shinjuku is “the best place in the world to drink Japanese whisky.”
Japanese beer does not begin and end with the big international brands (Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi). Owing to the Japanese love of craft and experimenting with technique, the country has a thriving microbrewing scene. As in North America, most of the craft beers mimic old European styles but often have a twist on tradition. Variety abounds, and neat-o brews can be found everywhere from neighbourhood bars to department stores (check the basement; that’s usually where the liquor section is). Some great beers we tried included Yona Yona cask ale and Fujizakura Heights Rauchbier, not to mention the Belgian-style white and ginger-flavoured beers from the the Hitachino Nest brewery.
Where to drink in Tokyo: Goodbeer Faucets and Craftheads are both located in central Tokyo, offer well-curated selections and have staff members who speak decent English. The latter also has a very nice selection of North American whisky.
Stay tuned for the second part where I talk Sake!