Alcoholic Beverages in Japan: A Cocktail Lover’s Paradise

  • FOOD
  • As I don’t drink beer or strong spirits, cocktails are my drink of choice when I want an alcoholic beverage to relax with in the evening. When I lived in China, I found there was very little choice for the non-beer / non-strong-spirit drinker, and would often be unable to find anything at all that I could drink in local bars.

    Imagine my joy on coming to Japan and discovering that my worries were over – the Japanese love (light) cocktails too and you can find a wide variety of mixed drinks at any convenience store or supermarket, as well as at local bars. With so much choice, it’s easy to become overwhelmed (particularly after having had so little choice for so long) and during my time in Japan I have slowly worked my way through the major brands of tinned light cocktails in order to discover my favourites. So let’s take a look at the top brands when it comes to buying cocktails in Japan.

    Suntory Horoyoi Chu-Hi

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    This is my go-to product when I want a little something at the end of the day. Suntory is a well-known brand that produces a plethora of food and drinks as well as alcoholic beverages. The name Chu-Hi comes from ‘Shochu Highball’ – shochu is a distilled spirit, with varieties made from buckwheat, sweet potato, barley and rice. Shochu is stronger than wine or sake but is weaker than whisky and vodka.

    The Suntory Horoyoi Chu-Hi drinks are made out of shochu and carbonated water with a variety of flavours available – most of the flavours are very sweet so if you have a sweet tooth, you’re in luck! My favourite flavours include Peach, Lemon Ginger, Ume (plum), Sour Grape (the bright pink can) and Lemon. Other flavours available include Cassis and Orange, White Sour, Cola Sour, Grapefruit Salt and Iced Tea. They also have special limited edition flavours which you see from time to time such as Apple, Melon Sour, Wine Sour, Winter Tangerine and Honey Lemon.

    A can is 350 ml and calories per can range between around 170 – 200. With an only 3% alcohol content, they make the perfect drink for a light-weight like me. The manufacturers suggested retail price per can is 141 Yen (which is about the price you pay if you buy a can from a convenience store like 7/11 or FamilyMart) but if you buy them from a supermarket like Aeon (Daiei) you can pay as little as 113 Yen per can (including tax), with Tax Free shops like Don Quijote selling them even cheaper.

    TOPVALU Chu-Hi

    If you are a bargain hunter who shops at Aeon, the ‘TopValu’ brand will be well known to you. This is the ‘own brand’ of the Aeon company, offering quality goods at a lower price than the big brand names on the shelf above. Like most ‘own brand’ products, the quality is pretty much the same as other brands, and for the noticeable cut in price, a fractional difference in quality is well worth it.

    The taste of these drinks is far less sweet than the Suntory brand of cocktails – drinks are less flavoursome and can be a little tart, but they can get the job done. Flavours available are Lemon, Grapefruit and Plum, as well as limited edition flavours. Low-calorie versions are also available, where a 350 ml can has less than 80 calories to its name. Normal versions average about 170 – 220 calories per 350 ml can.

    As these are a TopValu brand you can only buy them at Aeon… for the princely sum of 85 Yen per can. This is pretty much the cheapest tinned cocktail you can buy. Even better value for your money is the larger 500 ml can which will set you back a mere 115 Yen. With a 6% alcohol content, they are also good alcoholic-value for money. Sometimes you see special ‘strong’ editions that are as much as 8% alcohol.

    Kirin Chu-Hi

    Kirin is a big brand name and well known outside of Japan. Their chu-hi drinks are not as sweet as other brands and are clearly marketed to men more than the Suntory chu-hi drinks. The Kirin Hyoketsu brand comes in the following flavours: White Peach, Yuzu and Honey, Lemon, Pink Grapefruit and Red Grape. At 3% they are at the standard strength for tinned cocktails in Japan. Kirin also carries a line of sparkling wine (300 ml and 500 ml cans available) which is called ‘Sparkling Chardonnay’. This drink is sweet and light, and at a 5% alcohol content it is a happy mid-point between the regular chu-hi drinks and the Kirin Strong brand.

    Kirin Strong

    If the normal Kirin brand beverages don’t do it for you, consider getting something that packs more punch from their Strong Zero range. These drinks contain 9% alcohol, and are available in 350 ml and 500 ml cans. Regular flavours include Lemon, Grapefruit, Lime and Grape, but they often have limited edition flavours – this summer we saw cans with Cherry flavour on the shelves, and now autumn arrived they have released a Sour Plum edition.

    Asahi Cocktail Partner and Slat

    Other big brand name Asahi crafts popular beers but also has a range of tinned cocktails. Their drinks are fruity and flavoursome, with the liquid sometimes containing small bits of pulp from the actual fruit. Flavours include Cassis Orange, Salty Dog (grapefruit), Screwdrivers (orange), Moscow Mule (lime) and Gin and Tonic. Asahi’s other cocktail brand is Slat, which is marketed as a low-calorie drink with lots of healthy fruit pulp in each can. Flavours available are Grapefruit, Lemon, White Peach, Chardonnay and Shekwasha (a type of citrus fruit).

    So as you can see, there is no shortage in choice of alcoholic beverages for the (light) cocktail lover in Japan. No more am I destined to sit without a drink as my friends glug their beers – in Japan there is a wide variety of drinks available at low prices, and the variety is good wherever you are. Of course, supermarkets have the best choices, and tax-free shops like Don Quijote have amazingly low prices, but even your local convenience store will have at least a handful of different drinks to choose from. These Japanese Chu-Hi brands are only the tip of the iceberg – convenience stores also have small cans and bottles of drinks like wine, ‘Beefeater’ Gin and Tonic and even sweet cider can be found on occasion. There are plenty of smaller brands to try out too, so what are you waiting for? Find your new favourite beverage!

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