Japan has a long tradition of producing some of the most unique alcoholic drinks in the world. From fruity tasting nihonshu to eclectic shochu, Japanese sake has a rich, complex history that has never been told in full until now. The Complete Guide To Japanese Drinks, written by Stephen Lyman and Chris Bunting, is a comprehensive and engrossing text on Japanese alcohol.
Lyman takes readers on a journey through sake, shochu, awamori, umeshu and Japan’s interpretation of western drinks like whisky and gin. Compelling, informative and rich in detail, The Complete Guide To Japanese Drinks is a must-read book for anyone with an interest in Japanese culture.
An introduction to the wonderful world of sake
The opening chapters of the book provide an overview of sake and its importance in Japan. In addition to explaining the different types of sake, like honjozo, junmai and ginjo, Lyman supplements the information with native lore and stories.
There’s one intriguing story that goes into detail about the koji riot in 1440, which marked the transition from sake being seen as a religious drink to a commercial commodity. The Kitano Shrine had a legal monopoly on Kyoto’s production of koji and many merchants complained that the prices of the koji were inflated. The koji makers locked themselves in the shrine and the shogan’s soldiers broke in to get them out. The temple was burnt to the ground and the religious aspects of sake were smashed to pieces.
It’s this kind of dramatic flair that makes The Complete Guide To Japanese Drinks more than just a drinking guide to Japan. Lyman and Bunting want to share the traditions of Japanese drinking with the wider world. For an extensive look into nihonshu, I’d recommend reading John Gauntner’s Sake Confidential.
Other chapters focus on shochu and awamori, two exciting drinks that are becoming better known in the west. But unlike shochu, awamori is harder to find outside of Japan. Lyman provides an impressive amount of detail about both drinks and how they are created. To learn more about shochu and awamori, be sure to read Christopher Pellegrini’s Shochu Handbook.
Umeshu insight and herbal remedies
While I was familiar with other types of Japanese alcohol, I didn’t know much about umeshu (plum alcohol). Lyman provides brilliant insight into how umeshu is made and the state of the market.
What’s interesting is that at the height of umeshu’s popularity between 2003 and 2011, a lot of producers cut corners by adding artificial flavouring to the drinks instead of using traditional ume plums. This discovery led to a new designation of umeshu called honkaku umeshu (authentic plum alcohol) in 2015.
Another fascinating part of the book looks into the role of yakushu (medicinal alcohol). The most famous, habushu, features a dead pit viper drowned in awamori. The snake’s venom is diluted in the alcohol, making it nonlethal, but still potent enough to act as a stimulant.
Japanese takes on western classics
Traditionally, Japan has taken practices from other cultures and perfected them to a high standard. The same applies to western alcohol making. Lyman takes the reader on a journey through the history of Japanese whisky and the creation of Suntory and Nikka. He also lists the locations of all the breweries and makes recommendations on when to visit.
The same treatment is given to beer, which was brought over to Japan in the Edo period by Dutch merchants. Originally seen as a rare commodity, the Japanese started brewing beer that was highly toxic. In the modern day, Japanese beer has come a long way and a wide variety of craft beverages have started to appear, such as Mori 1984.
In the final chapters, Lyman focuses on Japanese wine and cocktail making. While I’m not a fan of wine, I can still appreciate its relevance to the alcohol industry. Lyman tells a tragic story about the Japanese wine king Kanae Nagasawa, who created a wine empire in California, only to lose it all in later life.
The cocktail section is interesting as well because it provides a range of drink recipes that can be created at home. As Lyman recommends, if you’re looking for the best cocktails in the world check out the Ginza neighbourhood in Tokyo.
A celebration of Japanese culture
The Complete Guide To Japanese Drinks certainly lives up to its title. Lyman’s passion for Japanese booze can be felt in every word. Every photo of a bar and drink has been captured with loving detail. Reading the book has added fuel to my fire for learning about and drinking more sake. It’s sure to do the same for you.