Japanese Drinking Culture

Drinks play a role in many spheres of Japanese culture: sake is integral to many traditional festivals and ceremonies, while drinking beer or whisky highballs with colleagues after work is part of day-to-day life.

Although sake is still popular among many Japanese drinkers, spirits like shōchū and crisp, easy-drinking styles of beer are the most common in modern Japanese bars. Meanwhile, Japanese whisky has experienced a stratospheric rise in popularity in recent years – both in Japan and overseas – thanks largely to names like Suntory and Nikka.

The Japanese word for ‘cheers’ is kanpai! Sake in Japan dates back to the 3rd century AD. In Japan it’s considered rude to pour your own drink. Top up your chums and let someone else pour for you. Beer is Japan’s most popular alcoholic drink – the nation consumes 5.3 billion pints a year. The elegant style which popularised Japanese whisky was developed to appeal to the Japanese palate which, historically, was unused to brown spirits. Japan’s first whisky distillery opened in 1923. Umeshu is a delicious Japanese liqueur made by steeping unripe plums in alcohol with sugar. Sake is a rice wine, typically brewed to between 5% and 20% ABV. It can be consumed cold or slightly warm. Japan's native grape variety is the white grape Koshu. Shōchū is a spirit distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes and other starches, and flavour varies considerably depending on what is used. Shōchū is usually diluted to anywhere between 12-25% ABV and is often mistaken for sake by tourists. Some Japanese drinks such as Sake and Shōchū use a fungus called Koji to build flavour in the initial brewing process.

Japanese Flavours

Japanese drinks have become world-renowned for their subtlety and complexity of flavour.

The Japanese art of blending places emphasis on overall flavour, using components to create a product that is more than the sum of its parts. Where whisky is concerned, the aromatic impact of Japanese Mizunara oak casks on spirit has led to the wood becoming sought after by producers all over the globe.

Discover Japanese whisky

Gins made with Japanese botanicals such as Roku from Suntory, Nikka Coffey Gin and Ki No Bi all offer a gimmick-free journey through traditional Japanese flavours. Even vodka is making its mark, with the likes of Suntory Haku and Nikka Coffey Vodka – the latter made in the same stills used to create Nikka’s grain whiskies – carving out a niche for themselves.

Mizunara oak imparts spirit with notes of sandalwood, incense, citrus and spice. Yuzu is a citrus fruit – it tastes like lemon, lime, tangerine and grapefruit all rolled into one. Sakura is the Japanese name for cherry blossom. Sanshō pepper has a zingy citrus flavour and a slight numbing effect.