There is no dearth of interesting liquor in Japan. Sake and Asahi beer are synonymous to Japanese alcohol, but there is a world within the industry which is very inciting and lesser known among foreign travellers.

After an exhausting and exhilarating day of exploring Kyoto, we walked a few steps away from Nishiki Market. This was where my introduction to the local alcohol begun.

No sooner we were seated, a group of ‘salarymen’ or Japanese salaried office-goes got a large table near us. The stewardess walked towards them and asked in Japanese, ‘how many for beer?’ A majority of them raised their hands—making me smile. Of course I have been smitten by Japan’s brews like Asahi (especially Asahi Dry Black) and Kirin (headquartered in Tokyo). But this time these names failed to tempt me because there is just so much more to drink in Japan!


Shōchū is probably the most consumed liquor in the country. This spirit is distilled from rice and may have sweet potato and/or barley added to it. It is commonly misunderstood as Japanese vodka but no sooner I sipped it, I couldn’t overlook the resemblance. Very potent and pungent aroma, shōchū’s similarity to vodka comes from the high percentage of alcohol in it (about 25%-30%). Shōchū can be consumed hot or cold, depending on the season. Oyuwari (or shōchū with hot water) was my first, though I think it would have been better on the rocks.

Tip: Go for it if you like vodka.

Alcohol drinks Japan Amrita Das
A shop in Nishiki Market, Kyoto selling Japanese alcohol and other items.
Alcohol drinks Japan Amrita Das
Shōchū in Kyoto.


This whisky-based drink grew onto me. In my first sip I thought it had too much soda. (The whisky to soda ratio is 1:4.) But in the consecutive tastes, this sparking drink was smooth, light and textureless—giving it a refreshing taste. The Japanese highball has to be a favourite.

Tip: Drink after a hard day’s work (or walk) to reap best results.


Umeshu can also be referred as ‘plum wine’. This plum liqueur is low in alcohol content (about 10%-15%) and is very sweet. It is made by steeping the ripe fruit with sake and then adding sugar. It is left to sweeten and soak the flavours and alcohol.

The liqueur can be blended with ice or warm water. I tried my first glass with ice, which I thought added to its texture and mellowed its sweetness (personally I prefer malty to bitter alcohol). This plum wine is perfect for those who have a taste for dessert wines or sweet liquors.

Tip: Definitely worth a try when in Japan.

Alcohol drinks Japan Amrita Das
Highball in Kyoto.
Alcohol drinks Japan Amrita Das
Umeshu on the rocks.


Needless to say, sake is the most popular and widely available. There are so many varieties that no two sakes taste the same and buying a bottle as a souvenir can be most confusing!

This fermented rice liquor goes through a lengthy process of polishing, washing, steaming, fermenting, filtering and finally pasteurising to give us the clear spirit. The clearer the sake, the better the quality.

There are a few hundred types of sake which can be broadly classified into: Junmai (rice only without alcohol), Honjozo (with added alcohol), Ginjo (highly polished rice with or without alcohol), Daiginjo (very finely polished rice with or without alcohol) and Nama sake (all above mentioned varieties in fresh and non-pasteurised form).

My first sake in Hiroshima’s traditional okonomiyaki (or Hiroshima’s savoury pancake) food plaza was very impressive. It was clear (making my sake cup translucent), strong yet very tasteful. The next one at lunch in ANA Crowne Plaza Kyoto was even more impressive with distinct strength and more potency. This also had a hint of sweetness as an aftertaste.

Tip: Get a local to recommend your first sake. After that, feel free to experiment but remember the one you most preferred.

Alcohol drinks Japan Amrita Das
My first sake in Hiroshima.
Alcohol drinks Japan Amrita Das
Japanese ceramics and sake in ANA Crowne Plaza Kyoto.
Alcohol drinks Japan Amrita Das
My first Suntory beer in a sushi bar in Pontocho, Kyoto.

Cheap drinks in Tokyo:

-Taste three to five varieties of sake within ¥520 at Shinbashi’s (also spelt as Shimbashi) Sake Plaza.
-Head to the upmarket Ginza’s 300 Bar to try any alcoholic drink only for ¥300.
-Crawl through the very small bars of the iconic Golden Gai in Shinjuku to experience local nightlife on a shoestring budget.

Other local alcohol to try when in Japan:

-Suntory Premium Malts beer (beats Asahi)
-Hachikuma whiskey (exceptionally good)
-Kyoto craft beer (Gold Ale better than Pale Ale)

Best alcohol-related souvenirs:

-A bottle (or many) of sake (a ticket to Gekkeikan Ōkura Sake Museum in Kyoto includes a 180 ml of Junmai Ginjo sake as a souvenir)
-Sake ceramics (cups, jars and sets)
-Suntory’s exquisite Hibiki or Yamazaki whisky
-Key rings and other items with sake barrel prints

Alcohol drinks Japan Amrita Das
Bought two cans of Kyoto craft beer.
Alcohol drinks Japan Amrita Das
Sake barrels at Gekkeikan Ōkura Sake Museum.
Alcohol drinks Japan Amrita Das
Sake tasting at Gekkeikan Ōkura Sake Museum in Kyoto.

Good to know
-A drink at izakaya or traditional Japanese pubs is a must.
-The Japanese raise their glasses to ‘kampai!’ or ‘cheers!’
-Please remember to wait until everyone has their drink served, before you sip yours.
-We are permitted to carry only two litres of sealed bottles of alcohol within India.

Did I miss your favourite Japanese spirit?

Note: I was invited by Japan Airlines and JNTO.

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Amrita Das

I have been a travel and culture independent journalist. My bylines have appeared in many publications worldwide including National Geographic Traveller India, Lonely Planet Magazine India, The Indian Express and World Travel Magazine. A fellow of Media Ambassadors India-Germany 2019 program by Robert Bosch Stiftung and Centre for Media Competence, University of Tübingen. Currently, I am the photo editor for RoundGlass Sustain, a wildlife and conservation e-publication. I live in India.

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3 thoughts on “Must-Drink Local Japanese Alcohol”

  1. When are you taking me for a trail here please ? yes the common understanding is that Sake is most popular but after reading this understood that there are others also

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