It’s no surprise that a country that managed to turn foods as simple as noodle soup and raw fish into art forms also pulls out all the stops when it comes to alcohol. Japan has a boozy history that goes back thousands of years. The first mention of alcohol in Japan appeared in a third-century Chinese text that noted the Japanese were “much given to strong drink”—and in 21st-century Japan, not much has changed. Now, many of those strong drinks are spilling onto American shores. Here are five of Japan’s best boozy offerings to add to your drinking repertoire.
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Though Scotland is more closely tied with malty, peated spirits, Japan is quickly becoming a whisky powerhouse to be reckoned with. Distillers have been perfecting distillation for more than a century and, since there are few regulations, the category spans everything from complex blends to heavy hitting single malts. In the last few years it’s become easier to find Japanese whiskies in liquor stores Stateside. Now, you can find recognizable brands like Suntory as well as lesser known labels like Nikka, Yamazaki and Hibiki—we especially like these 10 bottles.
Most often distilled from rice or sweet potatoes, shochu is the most popular spirit in Japan. Though sometimes compared to vodka, it doesn’t have quite the same boozy punch. Shochu typically comes in at about 60-proof and it often has more flavor too, ranging from fruity to nutty to grainy, thanks to a variety of fermentation or aging methods. Though you might not be familiar with it, the low-ABV spirit isn’t hard to come by in the U.S. Give it a try instead of your usual hot sake the next time you go out for sushi, and discover which brand is right for you.
If you’re more enthralled by sweeter tastes, Japan’s fruity umeshu—liqueurs made by steeping fruit and sugar in alcohol—might be more up your alley. Umeshu translates to something like “plum liquor”—ume meaning plum and shu meaning liquor—and is typically a cordial flavored with ume fruits, which, though commonly referred to as plums, are actually closer to apricots. The sweet-tart drink can be enjoyed chilled or on the rocks, as an aperitif or as dessert, but we prefer it mixed into a cocktail (try using it as the sweetener in a Hot Toddy or a Daiquiri) or simply topped with a fizzy burst of Champagne.
One of the more recent developments in Japan’s distilling scene is vodka made from the country’s most abundant grain: rice. Unlike vodkas distilled from more traditional ingredients like wheat and potatoes, rice vodka has a noticeably silkier mouthfeel and flavor that’s far more suited to sipping neat or on the rocks—if that’s your thing. One of our favorites is Suntory’s Ao Vodka. Ao, which means “blue” but is also used to describe varying shades of green according to the company’s website, is made in southern Japan and launched in the U.S. in 2014. It’s readily available in the U.S., along with Kyoto-based brand Kissui. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy they are to drink—especially in a sushi-adorned Saba Sashimi-Tini—or in a classic olive-topped ‘Tini.
Once Japan found its footing with vodka, it was only a question of time before gin followed. The Kyoto Distillery is the most notable of the country’s craft gin producers, with its signature Japanese dry gin, KI NO BI. Distillers infuse neutral rice spirit with classic juniper berries, but they buck tradition by also including some of the country’s classic ingredients like yuzu, green tea, ginger, bamboo and sanshō pepper. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find this special bottling in the U.S., we’re sure it will make its way stateside soon enough—especially with Australia paving the way for faraway gins. If you happen to be visiting Japan, be sure to snag a bottle—or at least give it a try in its homeland.