From sake to whisky; we have an unquenchable thirst for Japanese drinks

Story by Andy Ratcliff. Email him

Thanks to an influx of bars (and expat bartenders) over the past few years we are blessed with an array of options for drinking Japanese-style liquor. Al Robertson from Sonny in Hobart stocks hard-to-find and surprising Japanese wines, while in Sydney, you can sip on Sake to a vinyl soundtrack at Ante or tour Japan’s finest whiskies at Bar Besuto. Needless to say, we are spoilt for choice without even going wheels up on a 747.

Described as wine, brewed like beer, and tasting patently like neither, sake’s undefinable complexity is just one part of its intrigue. Steeped in history, it possesses a rich cultural legacy – spanning from ancient ceremonial offering to a premium global export poured in some of the world’s best bars.

While ubiquitous throughout Japan, sake’s flavour oscillates between crisp, clean, robust, complex and everything in between, due to fluctuations in the volume of water used to soak the rice, in addition to differing production styles.

Sake’s very name is exquisitely vague, translating quite simply into ‘alcohol’. Its earliest mention predates the Roman Calendar, and domestic records suggest it was fermented using enzymes found in human saliva. Villagers were said to have chewed on rice grains before spitting them out into a communal pot, known then as ‘kuchikamizake’.


“Al Robertson from Sonny in Hobart stocks hard-to-find and surprising Japanese wines, while in Sydney, you can sip on Sake to a vinyl soundtrack at Ante or tour Japan’s finest whiskies at Bar Besuto.”

Thankfully technique has refined considerably since then, though the main components are largely the same: water, rice, yeast and koji – a fermentation culture known formally as Aspergillus Oryzae (or mould).

Another little fun fact about sake for anyone who suffers from heartburn is that it has about 1/3 of the acidity of a standard glass of wine and is one of the only alkaline alcoholic drink options.

While sake is synonymous with Japanese drinking culture, it would be remiss not to mention the country’s ‘other drink’. Shochu is a traditional hard liquor pounded by any self-respecting salaryman, with flavour descriptors that seem more at home on a dating profile than a drinks list (think ‘bold’, ‘masculine’ and ‘intense’).

Although a decent proportion could be written off as little more than cheap piss, shochu is enjoying a renaissance right now, and with it, an emerging class of refined and elegant spirits. The best of them goes by the name ‘honkaku’, regarded as the most authentic, and the only choice for the shochu connoisseur.

While Sake is fermented using rice, Shochu has a more diverse and interesting array of ingredients, including rice, barley, and even sweet potato. It’s also distilled, making it bolder and a stronger drink, sitting around 25-35% ABV. So, let’s be honest, it’s more of a party starter.

It gets weird when shochu makers opt for a different base material paired with an alternative koji variety. Picture a sweet potato shochu crafted with rice-derived koji or a brown sugar shochu featuring barley koji in its production. The potential flavour combinations are vast, contributing to the individual aspect of shochu production.

Upon completion of fermentation, the beer undergoes distillation, typically a single round for most producers. This meticulous distillation process demands an experienced touch to extract the authentic character of the ingredients.

Japanese whisky, rooted in Scottish traditions, has gained global acclaim in recent years for its unique craftsmanship. Pioneered by two legendary figures, Shinjiro Torii (Suntory) and Masataka Taketsuru (Nikka), Japanese whisky mixes traditional methods with innovative techniques. Characterised by meticulous attention to detail, Japanese whiskies often showcase delicate flavours, balanced profiles, and a harmony of malt and Mizunara oak influences. The artistry extends to the labels, embodying cultural aesthetics such as the Hibiki bottle representing the twenty-four seasonal changes in the lunar calendar.

So, what makes it differ from Scotch Whisky? Obviously, the environment plays a major factor. Yoichi up North has a very different climate from that of Yamazaki in the South. The water source they use will also play a part, and of course, the wood they use to age their whisky.

Mizunara is an indigenous type of oak from Japan and translates to “water oak” due to its high moisture content. They’re very pretty to look at but absolute bastards to work with because they don’t grow straight and so the staves have to be cut slightly thicker than their Scottish counterparts and they also need to be two hundred years old. That doesn’t make life easy! Being indigenous to Japan, they were used for whisky production during and after the war, as imports were cut off and the supply of whisky was still in demand.

These days Mizunara-aged whisky is held in high regard and is usually only used in finishing a whisky as opposed to a full-term maturation.

Rising to prominence in international competitions, Japanese whisky reflects a commitment to quality, captivating enthusiasts with its rich history and evolving excellence in the world of fine spirits. Unfortunately, it’s a victim of its own success. If only they had more whisky, then it’d be cheaper than a house in Sydney.

Botanical Highball
Bar Besuto, Sydney

30ml Roku Gin
10ml Tsuru-Ume Yuzushu
Top with Shiso Leaf Tea
Ice provided by Bare Bones Ice Co.

Shiso Tea Sosa Recipe by James Russell.
Heat 3L of filtered water to boil
Add 200g of crystalized rock candy and stir
Let cool to 80 degrees
Tear 20g of shiso leaves three times
Leave to steep for 6 minutes
Use a Chinois and filter paper to remove as much fine particle as possible
Add 100ml of Kochi yuzu juice

Bottle and let cool, in an ice bath.
Carbonate to 40psi, three times with 30-minute intervals.
Keep refrigerated and carbonated.