Japanese Alcoholic Drinks: The Complete Guide

Japanese Alcoholic Drinks: The Complete Guide

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Juban - shochu bar in New York City
There's so much more to Japanese alcoholic drinks than sake and whisky. And this book gives a complete guided tour.

When most people think “Japanese booze,” they still tend to think of sake as the end-all and be-all of the genre. The popularity of Japanese whisky, thankfully, is helping change that perception. But Japan’s relationship with alcohol goes back thousands of years, and the available variety transcends these two categories. And in recent decades, that tradition has only grown deeper as Japan offers its own take on traditional “Western” drinks such as whisky, beer and wine.

That’s why I’m very happy that Chris Bunting and Stephen Lyman wrote The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks: Sake, Shochu, Japanese Whisky, Beer, Wine, Cocktails and Other Beverages (Tuttle Publishing). This beautiful book is a revision of a previous work by Bunting that documented great places to drink in Japan. For this edition, Mssrs. Bunting and Lyman opted instead to talk about the history and variety of Japanese booze as such. The goal, as Bunting describes in the introduction, is to enable you to enjoy what Japan has to offer, no matter where in the world you are.

Japanese Alcoholic Drinks History and Trivia

One thing I love about Japanese Drinks is that it’s a beautiful coffee table book. (They did opt for a Comic Sans-like font for the subtitle on the cover, which was unfortunate.) The book’s layout and design are engaging. Every page teems with photos of historical paintings and modern-day alcohol artisans plying their craft.

Digging into the text, one finds a well-organized introduction to the scope, history, and practice of modern Japanese booze. The authors split the book into “native Japanese” traditions and “Western” alcohol traditions in Japan. However, they’re also astute enough to point out that this divide is somewhat arbitrary: the art of alcohol brewing originally came to Japan from China.

Japanese Drinks starts off, rightly enough, by covering sake. Bunting and Lyman quickly point out my favorite bugaboo: that the word “sake” (酒) is actually the Japanese word for “alcohol,” and that Japan refers to fermented rice alcohol as nihonshu (日本酒), or “Japanese sake”. The rest of the chapter is a deep dive into nihonshu’s long history, starting from its origins as a rice concoction that people chewed communally and spit into a pot. The book introduces us here to koji (麹), the rice mold that is the foundation of most Japanese alcohol production. Along the way, Bunting and Lyman drop trivia sure to interest any Japan fan or Japanese language student. The treatment of nihonshu is extensive, and even ventures into rare territory such as koshu (古酒), or aged nihonshu.

Shochu and Awamori: The Ignored Side of Japanese Booze

Habushu  -pit viper in Japanese booze (awamori)
Habushu (ハブ酒), or awamori with a drowned pit viper. The awamori brings the viper’s venoms to non-lethal levels, turning it into a stimulant. (Picture: Tuttle Publishing)

Perhaps my favorite parts of this book, however, are the sections on shochu (焼酎), or Japanese distilled alcohol, and awamori (泡盛), the distilled, boozy pride of Okinawa. I am admittedly a neophyte when it comes to both. I’ve never tried awamori (I know – shameful), and I only occasionally dabble with shochu. So I’m thankful that I now have a guide to each.


The book describes Shochu as “Japan’s best-kept secret,” and it’s easy to understand why. Japan produces three times as much shochu as Mexico does tequila – yet almost all of it is consumed domestically. Unlike Japanese whisky, shochu is little known outside of Japan. The book gives readers a carefully detailed guide to shochu, breaking it down into its two major types (honkaku, or “authentic”, and korui, or “multiply distilled”), and then dives further into the main styles of shochu. A stunning variety of ingredients can form the base of shochu – from rice or barley to kasu, the lees left over from nihonshu production.

Awamori: Okinawa’s Alcoholic Claim to Fame

If shochu is obscure outside of Japan, that goes double for awamori, or, as Bunting and Lyman call it, “Okinawan moonshine.” Okinawans have a reputation in mainland Japan as heavy drinkers. (The truth, it turns out, is complicated[3]: Most Okinawans drink on average less than those in the mainland, but Okinawa has a higher incidence of heavy drinking and alcoholism.) Like nihonshu, awamori has humble origins in kuchikamikaze – rice chewed and spat into a container and left to ferment. Modern awamori is made from black koji mold and long grain rice from Thailand. The brew is aged for several years prior to consumption.

The “native Japanese” section finishes off with a very short discussion of umeshu (梅酒), or plum liqueur. As someone who loves sweet cocktails, I have a soft spot in my heart for this concoction, which is delicious with a little soda or mineral water.

Western Booze, the Japanese Way

Bartender Yamazaki Tatsuro, the “father” of Japanese bartending. (Picture: Tuttle Publishing)

Japan, like many other countries, excels at borrowing culinary traditions and making them its own. (I discussed this in-depth earlier this year with my review of popular “Western” foods in Japan.) So it’s no surprise that Western drinking traditions live side by side traditional Japanese alcoholic drinks.

Bunting and Lyman go into each tradition in rich detail. They save their most thorough treatment for Japanese whisky. And rightfully so: Japan’s take on this famous booze is so popular that certain brands and years have started selling out. Their history of whisky tells the tale of the first Japanese whisky producer, Nikka Whisky founder Masataka Taketsuru, and his English wife, Rita. (The pair were the model on which NHK based its popular morning drama series about Japanese whisky, Massan[1].) The book also contains some important warnings for tourists to Japan around imported whisky and overcharging.

The Confusing Japanese Beer Market

The section on beer is useful for those who might be confused by the admittedly confusing Japanese beer market. Such concoctions as happoshu (発泡酒) – or, as writer Bryan Harrell once called it, “Frankenbeer” – are peculiar to Japan, and bound to mystify first-time imbibers. There’s also a very detailed description of the Japanese native wine market. Wine is increasingly popular in Japan; indeed, according to beer company Kirin, its consumption increased threefold during the Heisei era[2].

My favorite part of this section, though, is the chapter on Japanese craft cocktails. Hardly anyone thinks “cocktails” when they think Japan, and that’s a shame. Japan has both amazing bartenders, as well as plenty of hidden little bars where they can be enjoyed in an easygoing, relaxed atmosphere. As an added bonus, the book includes several recipes for delicious-sounding cocktails using nihonshu and shochu. (No, I’m not going to include them here – you’ll have to buy the book!)

The Book to Buy on Japanese Alcoholic Drinks

There are a few things in Japanese Drinks I found that I wish would be considered for the next edition. In some cases, the book puts across trivia or theories as fact that are actually subject to debate. For example, page 25 says that the Japanese word kudaranai (くだらない, “worthless”) comes from the inferiority of Edo (Tokyo) sake to Kyoto sake – i.e., it was so bad it wasn’t “passed down” (kudaru) from Edo to Kyoto. However, this is only one possible explanation of the origin of kudaranai. Indeed, some people find this origin story hard to believe.

Additionally, I enjoyed that the book has a short bar guide at the back. Bunting and Lyman even included a few great stand-outs abroad, such as the wonderful Daikaya in Washington, D.C. However, I wish they had included a little more variety, particularly in the nihonshu section. For example, a reference to a koshu bar – such as Shusaron (酒茶論), in Shinagawa Wings right across from Shinagawa Station – would have been nice. However, I realize that even publishing a bar guide at all is gutsy, as such information can go stale within months. (Exhibit A: A bottle bar in Shinagawa shut down two months after I wrote about it.)

These are small quibbles. The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks is a beautiful and thorough work on Japanese alcoholic drinks that lives up to its name. If you’re looking to expand your palette and try the best booze that Japan has to offer, I highly recommend it.

Here’s Why You (Think You) Hate Japanese Sake


[1] 連続テレビ小説「マッサン」. NHK Drama

[2] 日本国内ワイン消費数量は平成で3倍以上に. Kirin

[3] Tweet from UnseenJapanSite. Twitter

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy