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Japan loves its alcohol. Drinking is so much a part of its culture that it has a whole set of dos and don’ts associated with the enjoyment of a tipple. One drinking etiquette goes like this: Never pour your own drink, let your drinking buddy or host do it for you and you return the favour. Another says: Don’t start drinking till everyone chimes in with “kanpai!”, the equivalent of “cheers” or the local “yum seng”. Then, when taking part in a chorus of “kanpai”, your glass should always be held lower than that of your boss’ or elder’s.
If all this sounds too much for you and you want to avoid social faux pas when you enjoy a Japanese drink or if you simply want to recreate the Japanese drinking experience in the comfort of your own home, we tell you where you can buy Japanese alcoholic beverages in Singapore.
Sake (or nihonshu as the Japanese call it) is probably the most well-known of Japanese drinks. A rice wine made by fermenting rice with water, yeast and a mould known as koji, it has between 15% and 20% alcohol content, which is about as alcoholic as wine (15%) but much less strong than hard liquors like whisky (40%) and vodka (40%).
A light drink, sake is more delicate in taste than wine and less acidic with a mild aroma likened to caramel, nuts or fruits. It can be drunk hot or cold though many say the premium ones need to be consumed chilled since warming sake brings out the body of the drink and may cause the delicate top notes of the more expensive sakes to be lost.
There are different grades of sake determined by the polishing of the rice. Daiginjo is more aromatic, fruity and floral in flavour. Ginjo has more body and roundness. Honjozo has heavy notes and umami (savoury taste).
Isetan’s supermarket carries a very respectable range of sake. They have some of Japan’s best quality sake brands like Dassai, whose sake is the country’s most expensive and distinguished from the rest by the rice they use which has been polished till only 23% of each grain remains. This gives their sake a very pure and fruity flavour. The other premium brand is Kubota. Dry when cold and soft when heated, this sake is made with the finest rice grown in Niigata Prefecture, one of the best places in the country for cultivating quality rice.
NTUC FairPrice sells sake as well. Among their selection is Hakushika Japanese Sake Taru. This sake is aged in high quality Yoshino Japanese cedar barrels and, as a result, carries a fresh, aromatic cedar fragrance. The earthiness of this sake makes it a perfect accompaniment for stir-fried vegetables and salads. The supermarket chain also carries Japan’s number one selling sake brand – Hakutsuru. Brewed in Kobe, the brand is exported to more than 40 countries.
Meidi-ya has Kaika Daiginjo Tobindori Shizuku. The top-grade sake is made with sea water, melon, magnolia, vanilla and marshmallow, making it light and smooth with a hint of fruitiness. The bonus is the packing. It comes in a bottle shaped like those used for national sake competitions in Japan.
If you want something celebratory, you can get a bottle of Hakushika Gold Yamadanishiki Junmai at Cold Storage. A sake with a rich body and deep taste, it has golden flakes floating within to add a little sparkle to every occasion.
Online shopping is all the rage. So it should come no surprise that you can buy sake online as well. Sake.sg brings in sakes from the best breweries in Japan. Sakemaru specialises in artisan sake from nearly 30 breweries. Alcohaul and Alcohol Delivery have the highest grade of sake - Junmai Daiginjo. This sake of sakes is made from rice grains that have had at least 50% of their outer hull polished off for a fine, fragrant and complex finish. Wine & Spirits has sake from the top breweries of Japan as well.
There are stores that sell sake, too. Whistler Wine & Spirits Pte Ltd includes a wide range of the highest grade sakes and at Inter Rice Asia Pte Ltd, you can even buy sake accessories for the total experience. The type of cup used can change the taste and aroma of the sake. Thinner cups yield a smoother, rounder taste while tin cups help keep the sake at the temperature you want – whether warmed or chilled.
This sweet plum liqueur made by soaking unripe Japanese plums in alcohol and sugar is both fruity and aromatic. With just 10% to 15% alcohol content, it is less potent than sake. The top brands of umeshu are Choya, Takara and Shuzo.
Most places that sell sake sell several types of Japanese alcohol as well including umeshu. NTUC FairPrice, Cold Storage, Isetan and Meidi-ya are where you can find Choya and Takara umeshu. Inter Rice Asia Pte Ltd also has umeshu though only one type – Musashino Ten To Chi Ume Honoka made with Musashino plum for a strong, brandy-like flavour. There are online options, too - Sake.sg, Alcohol Delivery and Alcohaul. The latter two’s stock of umeshu, in particular, defy the ordinary. They have the award-winning Iichiko Bar Yuzu Liqueur that blends yuzu and honey for that sweet burst of freshness.
Shochu may not be as popular outside of Japan as sake or umeshu but it is well loved within the country. In fact, shochu is the preferred drink among the Japanese. Made by distilling rather than fermenting or brewing, a variety of as many as 50 ingredients can be used to make the drink - sweet potatoes, barley, rice, buckwheat, brown sugar and even chestnut, sesame seeds and carrots. In addition, high or low pressure can be used during distillation, the ingredient can be distilled once or multiple times and different koji can be used. As a result, the variety of shochu is quite amazing. There are some 5,000 different labels from over 800 distilleries. Rice shochu tends to be lighter while sweet potato shochu is meant for the connoisseurs. With 25% to 30% alcohol content, shochu is a stronger drink than sake or umeshu.
Shochu can be bought at the supermarkets that carry sake as well as the brick-and-mortar stores. Most of the online stores that stock sake, unless they only sell sake like Sakemaru, also sell shochu.
Because shochu is so varied, it is also very versatile. One of the alco-pops that is made with shochu is chuhai or shochu highball which mixes shochu with soda. This fruit-flavoured drink is low in alcohol – between 3% and 5% - and easy on novice drinkers because it tastes a lot like a soft drink. The supermarkets – NTUC FairPrice, Cold Storage, Isetan and Meidi-ya – all have chuhai on their shelves. Alternatively, Lazada offers rainbow-hued cans of various chuhai featuring different fruits – lemon, peach, green apple, sour plum, grape, red grape, white grape, grapefruit and lychee.
The Irish and the Scots are not the only ones who love their whisky. The Japanese do, too, particularly their men. Japanese whisky is sought after because of the quality ingredients that go into making them such as pure water from melted snow from Mt Fuji. In addition, warmer climates that result in different flavour profiles and the dedication of the people who perfect the craft of whisky make the drink into an art. The two biggest brands of whisky are Nikka and Suntory while Yoichi and Yamazaki are considered the best.
Again, the regular go-to places for Japanese alcohol will have whisky as well. They even have the insanely expensive ones like Hakushu 18 priced at nearly $400 a bottle. The 18-year-old single malt has notes of fruit and malt as well as a hint of smoke and dried cherry.
Shops that sell liquor might have Japanese whisky, too. The Standish, for example, has Nikka Coffey Malt, one of the must-try Japanese whiskies. Named after Irishman Aeneas Coffey, this whisky made from 100% malted barley is rich with caramel and vanilla flavours and an almost bourbon-like taste. Online store, The Liquor Shop, has a wide range of Japanese whiskies including the high-end Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hikibi, Kura, Mars Iwai, Nikka, The Chita, The Kurayoshi and Yamazakura. Another online store that carries Japanese whisky is LIQUORAR.sg
Japanese beer is widely popular in the country with brands like Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory and Asahi topping the list. Adding to the slew of usual places to get Japanese drinks, you can buy Japanese beers from places that specialise in beers, too. Brewer’s Craft, for example, has a massive range of Japanese beers.
This is a type of shochu from Okinawa and is made from long grain rice and black koji. There are different types of awamori. Kusu has been aged for three years. Habushu has a pit viper marinating in it. Hanazake or flower sake is the most lethal and expensive. It has a 60% alcohol content. In general, awamori is not for the faint-hearted. They have 30% to 50% alcohol content. If you are up for it, Whistler Wine & Spirits Pte Ltd has Donan which has a 60% alcohol content.