Whenever we’ve been overseas, second hand book shops have been stacked with travel guide books about Japan – be it about Japan on the whole, or its “smaller” regions of Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka. There are also numerous books about things to do in Japan – hiking, winter sports, and diving to name but three. There are blogs galore with people promising you the secret parts of Japan or eBooks too – a modern day tourist should not be without their phone and an ebook about Japan when they’re travelling here. Cuisine too has also become so popular that there are probably books out there dedicated to making the finest Japanese food there is as people extol the virtue of the life-lengthening benefits of the Japanese diet that consists of deep fried chicken, ramen, and other high calorie foods.
However, when it comes to alcohol, there is a distinct lack of information about what Japan has on offer to drink. While the various tour guides will perhaps point you in the way of some places to eat or drink at, while also warning you about the dreaded mysterious charges, they don’t tell you about the wide and varied drinks on offer that you can get at these places. Some readers will know of our small love of craft beer; however, we’re also a little partial to some of the other drinks Japan has on offer – shochu and nihonshu anyone? The big explosion in Japanese whisky and craft beer over the last decade hasn’t gone amiss with domestic distilleries and breweries winning awards around the world for best whisky and also best beer. And over the last few years, Japanese wine has come to the forefront as its once poor reputation for being overly sweet or not worthy of drinking has been shaken off, as it too has won awards in wine competitions. While we are far from being experts on those topics, I’ve often wanted to read more about them and find out more about their history.
But still a lack of English information about has held much of the world finding more about these types of alcohol and has perhaps stinted their international growth outside of niche markets and drinkers. That’s where “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks: Sake, Shochu, Japanese Whisky, Beer, Wine, Cocktails and other Beverages” by Stephen Lyman (Honkaku Shochu Ambassador / (sake sommelier) and Chris Bunting (author of “Drinking Japan”) comes on the scene. As the name suggests, this is a book about the various types of alcohol found on sale in Japan that are native to Japan or introduced into Japan and have found their way into the collective drinking environment of bars and restaurants across Japan. Rather than pointing you in the direction of where to drink, “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” is a guide to Japanese alcohol and its traditions.
The book itself is split into two clearly distinct sections – drinks that are native to Japan, such as awamori, sake, shochu, and umeshu – and drinks that have been brought into Japan over the years, such as beer, whisky, and wine. While most readers know about how western drinks are made, and there are books that are better suited to learning about them, “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” excels in introducing readers into the drinks native to Japan and how they came about. Each section is roughly split into a similar layout, perhaps due to Stephen Lyman’s background in science. Each section starts off with a brief introduction into the history of the drink, how the drink was traditionally made and how it is made now, various production methods, and also how to drink the alcohol. This has made “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” a very easy book to pop in and out of with its clear and organised writing giving you just enough to scratch the surface, but not enough to perhaps put some readers off. The authors know that there are other books out there that are more in-depth too than their own book, and also do a good job in pointing the reader into resources, such as “The Sake Handbook” by John Gauntner and also “Japanese Whisky” by Brian Ashcraft that allow the reader to jump feet into those topics.
With its second section on western drinks, the book is much thinner, which makes sense when you think about it. While western drinks have become incredibly popular across Japan, there are numerous books that are better suited to the history of beer, whisky, and wine. The section about beer, something that is often thought of as just being about lagers that were brought over from Germany, does encroach on the topic of craft beer and its boom since 1994. While it would have been nice to have read more about Japanese wines, having experienced some proper horrors in my time in Japan, the book did go some way into helping me realise why those wines had been so bad and how they have evolved since. However, with the reversal of fortunes mentioned earlier, it would be interesting to see how further print runs of “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” change.
The final section is geared more towards the international market with a few chapters helping readers to find out where they can buy some of these Japanese alcohols in primarily the United States, but with a few other places in Asia and Europe. Another section I would have liked to have read more about is the buying guide but for a beginner, “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” did help me understand the differences with the + and – numbers used on the bottles of nihonshu and also what to look out for when I’m buying some shochu. There are a few links in the descriptions on where to look for further detail but again, it’s something that could be expanded on in further print editions to help provide the reader with some more information about what to look out for.
It’s clear to see the amount of work that has gone into “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” too, with lots of beautiful pictures from inside distilleries and breweries that depict the various brewing processes that occur. With its historical explanations, finding some of the pictures to go alongside some of the descriptions must have taken time too, with the various processes that go into making the drinks native to Japan often being long and arduous, with some processes having been lost to history. It also makes “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” a perfect book to have on your table for people to peruse over and also to come back to for further reading and advice.
The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks Details
Author: Stephen Lyman, Chris Bunting
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing