We’re shining a light on the wonderful world of Japanese drinks here at Master of Malt, and Alex has the rundown on some brilliant Japanese beverages to get you started.
Spring is in the air, the blossoms are out, and we’re loving Japanese drinks right now. This time of year, the Japanese tradition of hanami takes place, where across the country blossoms are admired and celebrated with parties, picnics, and drinks.
With a rich drinks-making culture and an enviable reputation for excellence, there’s plenty to enjoy from the Japanese spirits scene and beyond at Master of Malt. We’re already big fans of Japanese whisky, and our customers certainly are too, but there’s a steady rise in people seeking out other Japanese drinks, so here are a few for the curious among you.
What is sake?
Alongside whisky, sake is probably the most well-known Japanese alcoholic drink, exported and enjoyed the world over. Sake is brewed, not distilled, and the process is a complex one, but a very simplified overview is that short-grain japonica rice is first mixed with koji – a fungus that converts the starch in the rice to fermentable sugars – before yeast is added. This ferments over a long period of time before the liquid is collected and bottled, where it’s allowed to rest before being sold.
Sake label tips:
There’s a huge variety of sake, and if you’re not familiar it can be tricky to know which sake to choose. You can find more information about which sake to choose here, but some things to look out for on a sake label are:
-Junmai: sake made only from rice, koji, and yeast can be labelled ‘junmai’. Most sake not labelled as junmai will have distilled alcohol added after fermentation, which isn’t a bad thing by any means, and tends to be delicate and aromatic.
-Rice polish grade: the level the rice is ‘polished’ (where the outer bran is removed to reveal the starchy core of the rice grain) is also a factor. The general rule is that the more polished, the lighter and fruitier the sake will be. Sake made from the most highly milled rice is labelled ‘daiginjo’, and the second grade is labelled ‘ginjo’, which is slightly less polished.
-Genshu: the sake hasn’t been diluted to lower the ABV.
-Tokebutsu indicates a special brewing method has been used.
How to drink sake
Sake is usually drunk neat, and can be served chilled, at room temperature, or warm. Although the concept of warm sake has been popularised outside of Japan, it’s more common to see higher-grade sake served chilled in order to preserve the delicate flavour profile. Think of it like you would a nice white wine, and pair it with lighter foods. There’s even sparkling sake, to rival any Champagne when served with seafood.
Have you tried? This light and aromatic Samurai Junmai Daiginjo Sake
What is awamori?
Awamori is a spirit produced in Okinawa, the picturesque, most southerly region in Japan. Around 40% ABV, it’s made from long-grain indica rice, which, like sake, is initially seeded with koji. Black koji is used, which is indigenous to Okinawa and so synonymous with awamori production that the strain has been named Aspergillus awamori.
The rice-koji mixture is often fermented with yeasts which have been isolated from all sorts of funky locations, including mangoes, hibiscus, and sakura blossoms. Which lead to some amazingly diverse flavour notes, ranging from floral and fruity, to rich and savoury.
After distillation, awamori is typically aged in clay vessels, which softens the spirit. After three years of maturation, it’s known as ‘kusu’, and prior to most stocks being destroyed in WWII there was kusu that had reportedly been maturing for over 200 years.
Awamori’s popularity outside of Japan is growing, with bartenders increasingly drawn to its characterful flavour profile and using it as the headline ingredient in cocktails. UKBG is even hosting the 2nd annual Great Honkaku Shochu & Awamori Contest this year.
How to drink awamori
Neat, on the rocks, diluted with water or soda or tonic, or mixed into cocktails (I recently had a highball-esque cocktail with awamori, shiso, and miso that was 10/10). Awamori is usually drunk alongside food, and it makes a fantastic alternative to wine with a meal.
Have you tried? Our best selling Chuko Yokka Koji Awamori
What is shochu?
Shōchū, like awamori, is a distilled spirit. However, it tends to be around 30% ABV, can be made across Japan, and is fermented from a whole range of starchy materials, not just rice. Sweet potato, barley, and buckwheat are commonly used. This means a huge range of flavour profiles can be found, so it’s hard to pin down exactly what shochu tastes like, but you can often find sweet, nutty, and floral notes, as well as tropical fruit. This will differ of course depending on the base material, which our in-house Japanese Spirits expert Richard Legg explains here.
How to drink shochu
There’s no hard and fast rule for drinking shochu; neat, on the rocks, lengthened with hot or cold water, or with oolong tea are all common serves. Its complex flavour profile and relatively low ABV make it a popular choice, especially alongside food. Bartenders are also reaching for the shochu when it comes to cocktails, and it makes a characterful substitute for your vodkas or gins.
How about? Kohaku No Madoromi, made from sweet potato.
What is umeshu?
When it comes to Japanese liqueurs, the likes of lurid green Midori might spring to mind. But umeshu is a widely drunk liqueur that’s starting to become more and more popular outside of Japan. Ume, commonly referred to as a Japanese variety of plum, is a fruit that’s actually more closely related to an apricot. Green, unripe ume are used to make umeshu, which is made by steeping ume in shochu, along with sugar, sometimes for a whole year.
How to drink umeshu
Umeshu is deliciously sweet and sour, with a delicate flavour of stone fruits. Usually around 15% ABV, it’s great neat or on the rocks. Top it with soda and you have a delicious long drink, and use it wherever you need a little sweet and sour in your cocktails.
How about? Choya Extra Shiso Umeshu, with whole plums in the bottle!
If this has got you excited to try Japanese alcoholic drinks, or you’re planning a hanami celebration of your own, why not also explore some of our amazing range of mixers, as well as plenty of Japanese whisky, and even some delicious Japanese rum, and gin made from rice spirit.