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Culture The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks

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5.00 star(s) 1 ratings
  • Entertaining and informative
  • Enticing imagery
This book is a collaborative effort of Chris Bunting, author of widely read "Drinking Japan" (Tuttle 2011), and Stephen Lyman, an American authority on Japanese shochu and Okinawan awamori. It is a fascinating and entertaining read for everyone interested in alcoholic beverages and Japanese drinking culture.

Rich in illustrations and abundant in anecdotes, Bunting introduces the reader to Japan's rich drinking culture and to its history of producing rice-based alcohol. Sake brewing is almost as old as rice cultivation itself. The Chinese "History of the Kingdom of Wei" disclosed as early as 297 C.E. that the Japanese were fond of their alcohol; even at funerals friends would sing, dance, and drink liquor. Sake was as popular with the ruling class as it was with the ordinary Japanese who would often resort to producing their doburoku (unrefined home-brewed sake) because they could not afford the officially sanctioned version. The century-long cat-and-mouse game between rice farmers and the tax collectors from Kyoto or Edo even led to the rise of regional dialects as the officials would not able to overhear conversations. Footsoldiers were only given small provisions of rice for fear they would put most of it into sake making and starve. Even in modern days, alcohol is still considered a social elixir bringing people together, in private and in more formal situations.

The book consists of two parts: the Native Japanese alcohol traditions (sake, shochu, awamori, and umeshu), and the Western alcohol traditions in Japan (Japanese whisky, beer, Japanese wine, and cocktails). Each chapter presents in great detail the history, the ingredients, the production methods, the maturation, and the variations of the particular alcoholic beverage.

Although I am more partial to traditional Japanese liquor, I thoroughly enjoyed Part II on yoshu, Japanese interpretations of foreign alcohol. Japanese whisky has been receiving a lot of international acclaims lately, and the history spanning from Commodore Perry who brought 109 gallons of American whiskey as a gift for the emperor (none of which ever reached the latter) in 1853 to modern-day Japanese single-malts is fascinating to follow. Despite all praise, Bunting reminds the reader that not all whisky that has "single malt' and "Made in Japan" on its label is a quality product: one particular distillery has begun marketing their brew as "8- to 33-year old pure malts" which is actually low- to mid-quality malt whisky imported from Scotland and blended in Tottori. If you find the "Kurayoshi" on a shelf, study the label carefully.

The chapter on beer does, of course, focus on the recent craft beer boom but sheds some light on other trends, such as happoshu ("sparkling alcohol"), also known as "Frankenbeer", and "Hoppy", an ersatz beer that can be mixed with shochu. Bunting devotes two sections on Japanese wine and cocktails and a mini-chapter on Japanese gin.

The Bar Guide lists a few select places in Japan, the U.S. and London that specialise in one or more types of the drinks so
delightfully introduced in the book, while the Buyer's Guide will assist you in finding out what you should be trying first and where to acquire it.

The authors call Japan a "drinking paradise", a fact they prove on every page of their excellent compendium. Very educational, very entertaining, and highly recommended!
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