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Predictions 2023: Drinking Trends and Shochu in the Year of the Rabbit

Among 2023's predictions, shochu has a couple of things going for it that fit into our troubled times: it's easy to store, easy to mix and still affordable.

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How will 2023's drinking trends shape out? Well, in these predictions, 2023 could be the year for shochu. Tokyo bars will be back, herbal beverages will stay, and low and non alcoholic drinks will be on the rise.

We don't need a crystal ball to predict a year full of uncertainties for 2023. The world is still reeling from the aftershocks of the pandemic and the raging war in Ukraine

As a result, consumers will have to put up with high energy prices, inflation, food shortages and a looming recession. The pain will be global, but as the roaring 20s have shown, cocktails can help. 

Some of the iconic creations like Old Fashioned, Tom Collins, Gin Fizz, Negroni or Mary Pickford were originally developed as a way to mask the flavors of low quality booze. After all, the golden '20s were marked by recession, hyper inflation and alcohol prohibition in the United States. 

Thankfully, the situation will not be as bad in 2023. And not even consumers on very tight budgets will have to put up with low quality moonshine. 

However, given the present economic climate, a lot of people will be conscious of prices. That means they will be looking for good value and a gratifying experience. Thrifty choices will also be on the agenda in Japan where consumers are watching record high inflation for the first time in four decades. 

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Where will this all take us in 2023?

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"Sho-Chu AUTHORITY" in Shiodome, Tokyo is a large shochu specialty store with a wide array of different varieties of shochu, (©Sankei Shimbun)

Predictions: Shochu No Longer Cast Aside

Enter shochu, a largely overlooked Japanese spirit. Japanese whisky and sake have been en vogue for more than a decade. Now, 2023 will see another star from the land of the rising sun stepping up: the humble shochu. 

Long regarded as the preferred drink of construction workers and people with alcohol dependency issues, shochu is a Japanese traditional hard liquor made from grains and vegetables. 

The distilled spirit has been around for about 500 years. It is most predominantly produced in Japan’s southern regions of Okinawa and Kyushu, where it was first created. 

Shochu typically has about 20 to 25 percent alcohol content, although it can officially be anything up to 45 percent. With over 50 possible base ingredients to choose from and dozens of ways to serve it, shochu is an all-rounder. 

It has a couple of things for it that fit into our troubled times. To begin with, Shochu is easy to store, easy to mix and still affordable. Unlike its posh cousin sake, it does not need refrigeration once the bottle is open. 

Many premium sake brands need to be cooled to preserve their quality and taste after the bottle is open. And even when cooled, they should not be stored longer than three or four weeks. After all, sake is a fermented alcoholic drink. 

In contrast, as a distilled spirit shochu is not high maintenance. As long as it is not exposed to direct sunlight and stored in a cool place, it keeps in good shape. This makes it an environmentally friendly choice that reduces energy consumption and cuts down on waste. 

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Popular sweet potato shochu is seen at the Life Namba store in Osaka (© Sankei Shimbun)

Prediction: Growing Appreciation for Shochu's Versatility 

As a drink shochu is versatile, great for mixing, but also possesses strong stand alone potential. While sake's main ingredient is polished rice, shochu can be made from a variety of base ingredients such as imo (Japanese sweet potato), barley, rice, buckwheat or sugar cane. Each of these base ingredients brings its own unique flavor and aromas to the final product. With over 50 potential base ingredients possibilities are endless. 

There are also dozens of ways to serve shochu. It can be enjoyed hot or cold, neat, with water, soda, on the rocks, with or without garnish or used as a base for cocktails. 

In contrast, sake usually only comes with two simple drink options: hot or chilled. 

Additionally, shochuʼs alcohol level can be moderated by adding different amounts of water. In Kagoshima prefecture, which produces most of the imo (sweet potato) for shochu, it is commonly enjoyed with hot water at a ratio of 60 to 40. This serving style brings out the sweetness and taste of the sweet potato. 

Shochu drinkers take advantage of different serving temperatures and styles to accentuate the taste of the particular shochu. 

The spirit pairs also well with all types of food and can be enjoyed before, during and after meals. For the calorie conscious, it has a relatively low-calorie count for its high alcohol content. And when consumed moderately, it is said to produce less of a hangover than other types of alcohol. 

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Kagoshima and other prefectures have invited US bartenders to their distilleries to strengthen overseas exports of shochu. (Photo provided by Hamada Shuzo)

Predictions: Interest Grows Outside of Japan

Outside of Japan, shochu still has a long way to go. "Overseas Japanese shochu is less well-known than Japanese sake and whisky," explains Shuso Imada. He is the general manager of the Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center in Tokyo. His job is to promote shochu and sake nationally and  internationally.  

Imada hopes that foreign tourists who are finally coming back to Japan can help to make the drink more popular abroad. As the best Japanese whiskies have already been snapped up and prices of newcomer brands are high, the all-round spirit might prove a worthy alternative.

"Kuramae White" beer (right) is "coffee" made from bread crusts, and "Kuramae Black" is made from coffee beans. Photo taken in Sumida Ward, Tokyo

Predictions: Herbal inspirations  

We all know that alcohol is a toxic and psychoactive substance with dependence-producing properties and therefore needs to be used in a responsible manner. Understandably, efforts to counteract some of its potential damaging effect involve adding herbs and spices with medicinal properties. 

Craft beer makers have long used citrus fruits, berries and spices when brewing beer to produce new flavors. Now more exotic ingredients like curry leaves, mangos or chillies have gone mainstream. Experimental brewers are even trying to mimic the familiar flavors of comfort foods like five-spice roast duck, or replicate the complex flavor of a fruit salad with herbs. 

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The green trend will certainly continue in 2023. Bartenders will happily answer the call for healthier consumption by adding fresh fruit like cranberries, orange or yuzu, a Japanese indigenous citrus. 

Anti-inflammatory turmeric or ginger root as well as shichimi togarashi (seven spice chili pepper blend) with red chili peppers, sansho peppers, orange peel and black sesame, hemp seeds and nori provides spicy flavors with health benefits. Using tea as a cocktail base will also become more trendy as herbal infusions and green or black tea make for a refreshing cocktail base that also fits well with the demand for lower alcohol alternatives.

These days, Awamori Soko bar in Okinawa serves drinks in many ways, including a lighter taste. (Photo by Agnes Tandler)

Predictions: More Sobriety in Bars 

Drinking in moderation and abstaining is no longer seen as a strange social behavior. Calls for low-alcohol and non-alcoholic drinks are increasing as more young people are embracing the trend to lower alcohol consumption. 

Bars serving sophisticated nonalcoholic options will soon be the norm rather than the exception. And while alcohol is something that we are all connected to in a myriad of ways, teetotalers will no longer be limited to non alcoholic beer, soda water and often disappointing mocktails that taste like lemonade.

As more consumers choose to be sober for health or other reasons, more versatile nonalcoholic products for mixing will be needed to serve the demand. Expect the creation of zero-proof cocktails that feel satisfying to those who are limiting or omitting alcohol. 

A small sake brewery in Shizuoka has recently developed its first non alcohol sake by extracting flavor components from kasu, or sake lees, the rice mash that is left over at the end of the traditional sake brewing process. Sanwa Shuzo has partnered with a fragrance maker to develop Daiginjo, a non alcoholic version of  Garyubai Daiginjo premium sake. 

Distilled liquor produced from trees by Forest Research and Management Organization (front) and fermented liquid before distillation (rear) (photographed by Shinji Ono)

Predictions: Bartenders will be Catering to Escapism and Nostalgia 

With the world's problems sometimes overwhelming, the toughest of us find the sublime and beauty of nature can provide a pleasant escape. Thankfully, Tokyo bartender Hiroyasu Kayama is at hand to serve up romanticism in a glass at his Shinjuku venue Bar Benfiddich. 

With only 14 seats, the bar never ceases to surprise. Kayama uses herbs and plants like hops, fennel, wormwood, hyssop, southern wood, thistle and rue, which he sources from his family farm in Saitama, to craft unique and memorable cocktails for his guests. 

Japanese tea, green tea flowers, sake and vodka make for a refreshing drink that is also beautiful to look at. Bar spoons have recently been substituted by small tree branches. Kayama has even teamed up with the Forest Research Institute of Japan to ferment different types of wood, like cedar or cherry, and distill them to create a new category of alcohol. 

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With Japan having reopened its borders for tourists, Bar Benfiddich is finally seeing foreign visitors again. No doubt that in 2023, Tokyo's bar scene will again win its fair share of top votes and a place on the global map.     

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Agnes Tandler (Tokyo)

Find other essays and reports by Agnes Tandler for JAPAN Forward here

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