Since basically forever, and now even still, many people think of Japan as a land of sake (rice wine) and the (mostly bland, though somewhat refreshing) big Japanese lager beer labels. And of course, for those rowdy nights, the combination of the two affectionately known as sake bombs. But just as there is more to the Japanese culinary scene than sushi and ramen, there is more to imbibe than just the sake and beers you’ve seen on the menus of your local sushi joint. If you want to taste more of what Japan has to offer why not try some Japanese wine, craft beer, or whisky?
Did You Know?
“The Scots spell it whisky and the Irish spell it whiskey, with an extra ‘e’. This difference in the spelling comes from the translations of the word from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms. Whiskey with the extra ‘e’ is also used when referring to American whiskies. This ‘e’ was taken to the United States by the Irish immigrants in the 1700s and has been used ever since.”
Japan has grown grapes for over a thousand years and have some of the best quality and most expensive table grapes; just a few years ago one bunch of grapes was auctioned off for $14,600, so around $430 for one grape?! Must be doing something right I suppose., nonetheless, their wine grape production hasn’t reached that level of perfection and has really only gained a bit of momentum over the past decade as creativity and quality has improved. You can find a variety of wine grapes here, including familiar European names, but the ones to look out for are Koshu grapes which are used to make delicate, crisp white wines and Muscat Bailey A grapes which are used to make lighter red wines. Japanese wines are usually a little sweeter and lighter bodied, so they pair well with Japanese foods like sushi or yakitori. Japan’s winemaking may have come to international attention relatively recently, but the attention to detail here lends to truly sensational and unique quality. It is still easier to find imported wines around the country than 100% Japan-made wine, but Yamanashi prefecture, the heart of Japanese wine country is only about two hours away from Tokyo. If you happen to visit around harvest time October through November, you can find tours where you can pick grapes, wine taste, and even soak in onsen Japanese hot spring baths at the foot of iconic Mount Fuji.
Japan’s beer industry is dominated by four well-known conglomerates- Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin, and Suntory, which produce massive amounts of mostly lager style, easy drinking beers. But a change in laws in the early 90s, coupled with a growing global craft beer scene, gave rise to microbreweries all over the country. While the big names still dominate the scene, these smaller operations are rapidly gaining traction both within and outside Japan.
Japanese microbreweries produce all different kinds of styles from hoppy IPAs to banana-esque Hefeweizens, and even sour beers (my personal favorite!) You can find brewpubs, craft beer bars, and festivals right in most major cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, and Nagano but unlike wine production, breweries don’t face the same geographic constraints, so you can find awesome beers all over the country.
Japanese microbrews can be tough to find if you don’t know where to look. Luckily, in this day and age, we have social media tools to help us find what we are looking for. There are lots of blogs and Facebook groups dedicated to hunting for the best craft brews. I also use this awesome phone app called “Untappd” to see what people are drinking around me and where I can find these beers. Through this magical (and free!) technology, I’ve found lots of cool, new to me, brewers such as Yo-Ho Brewing, Baird Brewing, Sankt Gallen Brewing, Minoh, Kiuchi, Yorocoo Brewing, Ginga Kogen Bīru, Echigo Beer, and Ishikawa Brewery. You may be surprised to find many high-quality offerings from these and other smaller breweries in the beer aisle at nearly any grocery store in Japan, and you will certainly be able to find these gems hidden in a local craft beer shop near you, and believe me, the beer is worth the hunt.
Hardcore whisky aficionados probably know all about the hype surrounding Japanese whisky- (with no e) as they very closely follow Scotch whisky in style and in spelling. Japanese whisky gained international notoriety in the early 2000s when Japanese single malts and blends started beating out their Scottish counterparts in various award rankings. The most popular distilleries are Yamazaki (located between the cities of Kyoto and Osaka), Hakushu (in Yamanashi), and Nikka (in Hokkaido) Their popularity means you’ll be able to find some of these bottles in the United States. But if you are a whisky connoisseur, definitely put a distillery tour on your Japan itinerary! Yamazaki and Hakushu both have English sites with information about tastings. There are normally small batches and different varieties that are not available for export that are most definitely worth the effort to seek out!
To be honest, while I have never been a whiskey (or whisky) drinker, now I am intrigued and ready to try these and see what all the hype is about. Recommendations from my whisky drinking friends who recently visited bought (and finished quickly) some fine examples, along with the praise of the international whisky community have convinced me that if I don’t like great Japanese whisky, maybe I really and truly don’t like whisky at all. I’ve decided that I must find out for myself, and for sure!