If the recent Olympics have triggered a desire to plunge into all things Japanese, don’t overlook the drinks. You’re probably already familiar with the country’s big lager brands such as Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo, and may well have tried sake (taken warm, as many people do, rather than cold, which is what the finer sakes deserve), but Japanese whisky? Gin? Shochu? There’s a lot to get your head around.
Whisky is a good place to start even, and perhaps especially, if you don’t think of yourself as a whisky drinker. It’s typically subtler, sweeter and less peaty than Scotch (although it often contains Scotch whisky) and less butch than bourbon, though some brands, such as Mars Maltage “Cosmo” and Tougouchi Premium, are made in a more American style. Like bourbon, they’re commonly drunk on the rocks or diluted with soda or ginger ale as a highball. Contemporary brands such as Nikka Days (see today’s picks) and Tenjaku blended whisky (£28 Sainsbury’s, 40%) are designed to be diluted and drink well as cocktails. Then there are the likes of Nikka’s Miyagikyo (£68.94 Master of Malt, £74.95 The Whisky Exchange, 45%), with its lovely overtones of red apple peel, that are better suited to contemplative sipping. Or, for a low-alcohol alternative to whisky, try shochu, which is like a slightly more alcoholic sake.
Japanese gins, too, have something quite distinctive to offer, with indigenous botanicals such as yuzu peel, sansho pepper and sencha tea, and often extraordinarily beautiful packaging: Etsu Gin (£44.05 Master of Malt, £47.99 Selfridges, 43%), for example, is one of the most stunning spirits bottles I’ve ever seen, though you might find, as I do, that the spiciness of its contents are a little too intrusive. I’m not unaware that these are expensive, but if you’re eager to explore the world of Japanese spirits, you could also buy a selection of 30ml samples from specialists Masters of Malt and The Whisky Exchange.
Sake is a whole subject in itself, and well worth a standalone column, but clever Aldi’s new listing (see today’s picks), cashing in on post-Olympics fever, is well worth a try next time you order in sushi. I also love the elegant, savoury Akashi-Tai Honjozo Tokubetsu (£26.99, or £15.99 for a 30cl bottle, Selfridges, 15%), which is a drink that would go with just about anything (and proof of the old Japanese saying that sake doesn’t get into fights with food).
And if you don’t drink alcohol, it’s worth thinking about getting into Japanese tea. If you’ve never had matcha, try it as a flat green or latte, both of which are perfect for this summery time of year.
Five cool ways to drink Japanese
Shirayuki Sake £4.99 (for 30cl) Aldi (in-store only), 14.5%. Sweet, creamy with a touch of ripe pear and macadamia nuts. A good foray into sake from the Itami area of Hyogo Prefecture, at a brewery that was founded in 1550.
Nikka Days Blended Whisky £32 Waitrose, £39.95 Jeroboams, 40%. Smartly bottled, light, sweet, floral and honeyed: whisky for people who think they don’t like whisky.
Roku Gin £25 Waitrose, 43%. Deliciously fragrant, citrussy gin including six Japanese botanicals that represent the different seasons. Great looking bottle, too.
Toyonaga Honkaku Shochu £40.25 The Whisky Exchange, 24%. Soft, sweet, creamy, almost coconutty, like a cross between a sake and a light Speyside malt. You can also serve it long with cold-infused sencha tea (Farrar’s do a good one at £7.95 for 125g).
Jenki Matcha from £27.99 a 40g tin jenki.co.uk. Milder, slightly westernised matcha to make ‘“flat greens”’ and refreshing matcha lattes (with almond milk, I suggest).