In the 25th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini and Stephen Lyman take a closer look at the history and modern enjoyment of the original hard seltzer – the Japanese chuhai.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned about delicious fermentations as a beer brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
Stephen and Christopher are not too precious to drink canned beverages when walking between stops.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode of Japan Distilled, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
What is a Chuhai?
A chuhai is the Japanese nickname for a Shochu Highball. If that is not immediately clear, that’s okay. “High” has the same pronunciation in Japanese as “yes”, which is most often romanized as “hai”. So ChuHigh, becomese ChuHai. Sometimes you will also seen it written as ChuHi, but that would be pronounced differently when read by a Japanese person (chu-hee). Thus, chuhai is probably the safest romanization.
But enough arcane linguistic minutiae. A shochu highball is at its most simple: shochu, soda, and some flavoring. The shochu is most often multiply distilled korui shochu rather than authentic single pot distilled shochu. Flavorings are most often fruit juices. We would probably classify Japanese sours in this group as well so long as carbonation is used.
History of the Shochu Highball
It’s believed that the chuhai originated in Eastern Tokyo after the war, most likely in the Hikifune neighborhood of Shumida City in Tokyo. Sanyu Sakabar near the Keisei Hikifune Station claims to be the birthplace. Still around today, the chuhai rivalry in the neighborhood remains strong with several shops making the same claim.
Today the premier korui shochu to use in a chuhai is from Takara, with its clean light taste that compliments the soda and fruit juice.
The canned version arrived in market in 1983 with the Hiliki from Toyo Distillery. The Hiliki brand still exists, but is now owned by Asahi. Nearly all canned chuhai brands are now owned by the big four: Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin, and Suntory.
Canned shochu highballs have exploded to such a point that they now encompass entire aisles in grocery stores and are more plentiful than beer in convenience stores in Japan.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous canned chuhai at this point is the Kirin Hyoketsu (Frozen) Chuhai, which comes in a dizzying number of expressions. The diamond cut can adds to the experience.
Yes, even legendary soft drinks manufacturer Coca Cola has gotten into the chuhai business. Their first ever alcoholic beverage launched in Japan in 2018. Today there are 5 expressions: 3%, 5%, 7%, 9%, and 9% dry.
Much More to Explore
There are literally hundreds of shochu highball brands now available across Japan. Exploring them can be fun, but be careful. They pack a punch. As we mentioned, Orion recently canceled their strong line due to concerns over alcoholism. As one of the cheapest drinks available in stores, its easy to over-indulge. So please enjoy responsibly.