Alcoholic beverages in Japan, Sake and Shochu
HOME About Japan Food

Alcoholic beverages in Japan

About alcoholic beverages in Japan


When you travel in Japan, you can drink beer, wine and whisky.
Additionally, you can enjoy the traditional Japanese alcoholic beverages.

Major Japanese liquor is "Sake" and "Shochu".

Sake is the alcoholic beverage made by fermentation, and Shochu is distilled alcoholic beverage.
You can drink sake at most restaurants or all Japanese style pubs, and you can enjoy shochu at many pubs.

In passing, if you are under 20 years old, you must not drink alcoholic beverage in Japan.
Of course, if you have drunk, you never drive a car.

Sake (Nihonshu)

Sake (rice wine) dedicated to the shrineSake (rice wine) dedicated to the shrine, Photo by coniferconifer

I guess that you understand that "Sake" is the most common traditional liquor.

That's right.
But "sake" in Japanese commonly means all types of alcoholic beverage.

So we call it "Nihonshu" (means Japanese liquor) when we differentiate from other liquors.
In this section, I write about Sake of Nihonshu.

Sake is produced by the multiple parallel fermentation of polished rice.
Therefore, it is often translated as "rice wine".

The alcohol content of Sake is higher at 15 to 16 % than beer (4 to 6 %) or wine (12 to 15 %).

The sake which we usually drink is clear and colorless.
And it has a little sweet scent and taste.

For making sake, rice and nice water are needed.
The rice for Sake is different from the rice as staple food.

Fortunately, both are gotten in various regions in Japan.
So there are 2,000 brewers all over Japan.

To know Sake more, please check the following websites.

Japan Sake brewers Association Sake World

How to enjoy sake

Tokkuri and Choko

We can enjoy sake cold, hot and room-temperature.

When we order hot sake, usually it is served in ceramic flasks called Tokkuri.
Usually, the capacity of a Tokkuri is about 180 ml to 360 ml.

Tokkuri filled with sake are put in hot water to heat up before serving.
Then, the tokkuri is served to you.
Pour into small shallow cups (It is called Choko) and drink.

The temperature of hot sake ranges from 35 to 60 degrees Celsius.
The heating is called "Kan" and the heated sake is called "Kan-zake".

When we order cold or room-temperature sake, generally it is served in chilled glass tokkuri. Probably choko are also glassware.
It provides cooling sensation.

The non-heated sake is called "Hiya-zake", and chilled sake is called "Reishu".

Chilled sake is often drunk in summer, but we can enjoy both hot sake and cold sake through all season.

Shochu & Awamori

Shochu on the rocks

Shochu is the liquor made by fermenting grain or sweet potato.

Over 95% of Shochu is produced in Kyushu Island and Okinawa Islands, because the climate is warm and unfits for making Sake.

Main ingredients are rice, wheat, buckwheat or sweet potato.
In Amami Islands between Kyushu and Okinawa, brown sugar made from sugar cane is also used.

Shochu is clear and colorless and has a distinctive smell according to the ingredient.
The alcohol content of general shochu is about 20 to 25 %, and it is lower than whisky or brandy.

Specially the shochu made in Okinawa region is called Awamori, and it is a well-known brand in Japan.

Awamori has different flavor from Shochu, and there are some products with higher alcohol content than Shochu.

How to enjoy shochu and awamori

You can drink Shochu and Awamori straight or on the rocks.
But many people drink it with hot water or cold water.

When you order Shochu at pub, a waiter asks you how to drink.
Tell him that you want to drink straight, on the rocks, with cold water or hot water.

In many cases, the waiter brings a bottle of Shochu/Awamori, glasses, crushed ice and cold water, or a pot filled with hot water.
At that case, make yourself a glass of favorite drink on your table.



Umeshu is most popular Japanese liqueur, and is made from steeping ume fruits (Japanese apricot) in Shochu and sugar.

It has a sweet, refreshing and sour fruity taste. And the color is amber like whisky.

Many people also make their own Umeshu at home.
It is the only fruit liquor which Japanese people can make at home legally.

You can get the Umeshu producted by breweries at any liquor store.

In pubs or restaurants, Umeshu on the rocks and "Umeshu Sour" (Umeshu with soda water) are popular favorites.

Chuhai or Sour


Chuhai is the shochu with soda water, and a flavor is mixed into it.

You can choose from some flavors such as lemon juice, grapefruit juice, umeshu, oolong tea and so on.

It is refreshing drink, and you can drink at Japanese style pubs.

This drink is also called "Sour".

Other popular liquors


Beer is most popular drink in Japan and the consumption is overwhelmingly more than sake.

When we join a drinking party, we always start with toasting with a glass of beer.

In Japan there are five major breweries: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory and Orion. (Orion Beer is sold in only Okinawa region.)

And, there are about 200 local breweries and the unique beer is sold in the limited area.

Beer Brewers Association of Japan


Wine is a little fancy liquor for Japanese people.

So we don't have so much opportunity to drink wine as beer or sake.
But there are not a little wine lovers in Japan.

Generally, we can drink wine at western style restaurants or pubs.

In Japan, nice wine is produced in mainly Yamanashi Prefecture and Hokkaido region.

Japan Wineries Association


Whisky is also beloved of many Japanese for a long time.
Generally it is drunk on the rocks or with water.

It is served at not only bars but also Japanese style pubs.
Especially, "Highball" which is a drink with whisky and soda is popular.

In Japan, there are two major whisky breweries: Suntory and Nikka.

Suntory Nikka Whisky

Return to Food