Just as water is served automatically at a restaurant table in the West, green tea appears magically on every restaurant table in Japan. But what about a more… spirited beverage? Japan’s consumption of alcohol is legendary, and involves its own beverages and etiquette.
Here’s what you need to know before you order.
Japan has embraced both beer and whisky from the West, and proceeded to develop excellent and well-know brands of both.
But for more local flavor, the two main contenders for an evening’s entertainment in one of the countless bars and restaurants and karaoke lounges throughout Japan you should consider are: sake (sah-kay) and shochu (show-choo).
Shochu originated in Japan at least 500 years ago, and may be even more ‘Japanese’ than sake, even though sake is better known in the West. In fact, while the West sees sake as the essential Japanese spirit, in Japan itself, far more shochu is consumed than sake.
Shochu is sometimes confused with Korean soju, and there are some similarities. They are both distilled beverages made from rice, or sweet potato. Japanese shochu can also be made from barley. Each has its own quite different taste.
If you drink it neat/ straight up or on the rocks, shochu is a stronger drink than sake, averaging 25-30% alcohol.
However, it’s often mixed with cold or hot water, or fruit juice/flavored water, and as a mixed drink, its strength drops substantially.
Sake is made exclusively from rice, with roots in Japanese tradition dating back to at least the 700’s, and possibly in its earliest forms close to 2000 years ago.
Where shochu is distilled, sake is fermented. You sometimes hear it called ‘rice wine’, but that’s not a good description. In fact, sake is more similar to beer than wine, as it’s made with grain, and brewed and fermented with yeast. Unlike beer, sake then goes through a second fermentation with a certain type of mold.
The results can range from sweet to dry, from clear to cloudy, and are weaker than sochu, with only about 15% alcohol. Although sometimes in the West, cocktails are made with sake, in Japan, it’s almost exclusively consumed on its own.
There’s nothing to warm you up on a chilly winter’s day on one of Japan’s ski hills, like hot sake, served in tiny cups with no handles that warm your hands up in no time.
I’m a big fan of warm sake, but it’s also served at room temperature and also chilled. Right now in the West, the trend-setters and tastings focus on cold sake. It is true that heating can kill subtle flavors, so it’s reserved for less refined varieties. If you are really intent on discovering the differences between different types of sake, room temp is the way to go.
Japanese Drinking Etiquette
Never pour your own drink. Your host/ friend/ colleague/ fellow drinker at a communal table will pour your glass for you. You should hold your glass lightly with both hands while your friend pours.
Similarly, do pour drinks for your friends.
Here’s where it can get tricky. Alcohol is served in small glasses. Your friends top you up often. So it’s hard to keep track of exactly how much you’re consuming.
You know where this is going. So to keep your head on your shoulders, it’s helpful to decline being topped up until your glass is empty, then at least you know you’ve had, for example, three full glasses and it’s time to quit.
It’s hard to decline a drink in Japan; a sense of hospitality, combined with the work-hard/ play-hard psyche of many Japanese people, keeps the drinks flowing. However, holding your hand flat above the top of your glass, or leaving it full, will deflect another hospitable top-up.
Kanpai! (kahn-pie!) = Cheers!
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