Given the rich history of the Japanese nihonshu and shochu industries, the explosion of Japanese whiskies and wine, and the blossoming of Japan’s craft beer industry, we'd be remiss to to not mention Japanese cocktails.
While Japan has a whole gamut of cocktails, much as you would find in bars around the world, popular drinks are much more limited in scope. Roughly speaking, cocktails will fall under four to five basic categories, though there is some overlap to be had. These include highballs, sours, mizuwari, and beer drinks, with a special mention going out to chu-hai.
Perhaps the most prominent of all cocktails in Japan is the humble highball. Traditionally, a highball is a combination of any spirit, such as whisky or vodka, and a mixer. The mixer could be soda water, tonic, or other carbonated beverage, like coke. However, when talking about a proper Japanese highball, the story starts with the Tory Kakubin Highball.
Suntory first released their wildly successful Kakubin whisky in 1937, but it wasn’t until 1955 that Suntory opened a number of Torys bars, with the star of the show being the Kakubin Highball, a mixture of Suntory Kakubin whisky and soda (roughly 1:4 ratio), stirred gently, served on ice and garnished with lemon. This cocktail remains a mainstay at izakayas (Japanese pubs) and higher end bars alike, and it’s almost impossible to go drinking without seeing the telltale shape of a kakubin highball glass at a bar.
Sours, like highballs, start off with a hard spirit, but add in a mixing citrus. Most sour mixes are some combination of lemon juice, lime juice, and sugar, and then either use ice to dilute the drink, or add in another mixer like a soda or a soft drink. In Japan, depending on where you are, this citrus is often switched out for a local variety, be it yuzu, sudachi, or a different in season citrus.
By far, the lemon sour seems to be the most lasting and popular drink, but most bars will list what mixers they have on hand and will have a few sours to choose from. Sours, much like highballs, have also gained a permanent place on the shelves of Japanese grocery and convenience stores, with new varieties going on the market almost monthly.
An interesting addition is mizuwari. While mixing a drink with water isn’t new, the Japanese mizuwari deserves its own mention as it is truly a staple of the Japanese cocktail world.
Mixed or cut with water, mizuwari is a combination of usually shochu, nihonshu, or whisky with water. While recipes can differ to some degree, mizuwari is usually a 2:1 combination of water to alcohol.
You can also find a hot water variety called oyuwari in the winter, or in frosty parts of Japan like Hokkaido. The mizuwari is popular enough that it isn’t uncommon to see some small clubs or karaoke bars where only one or two drinks are served, namely beer and mizuwari.
A recent bar trend I hope to see more of is the addition of shandy and shandy gaffs to drink menus. A shandy is typically a combination of a pilsner beer with a citrus fruit juice, usually orange or grapefruit juice. A shandy gaff, on the other hand, combines beer with ginger ale and occasionally a juice.
Another special mention is the humble chu-hai (or chu-hi). Not to be confused with the candy hichew, a chu-hi is a shochu highball, but also manages to be something more. Chu-hi can be found everywhere in cans, with as many varieties available as there are fish in the sea.
While at first glance, the world of Japanese cocktails may seem small, there is great depth to be found in the variations, seasonal ingredients, and sheer care and artistry that is put into Japanese cocktails. Whether at a fine cocktail bar or local izakaya, you are sure to find a drink that whets your appetite and brings you joy.
Try pairing your favorite Japanese cocktail with any of the artisanal foods found in our Japanese Foods That Pair With Alcohol: "Otsumami" Care Package.
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!