Spirited Away: A Taste of Asia’s Amazing Traditional Drinks
April brings an exquisite display of beauty to regions in which the cherry blossom tree is at home. The peaceful pleasure of witnessing the sight of the blooming sakura is for many sufficient motive to travel the world and while Japan’s Hanami festival (hana=flower, mi=watch) is by far the most famous occasion to experience it, the magic of spring touches China, Korea and other countries in the northern hemisphere.
Just like the appreciation of the floral landscape across the Far East offers a moving spectacle for the eyes, the flavours and perfumes of drinks springing from these regions have an alluring appeal that will delight you through a different path of senses.
Below, you’ll find a selection of some of the best traditional Asian drinks you can find in Ireland. While the cherry blossoms open in the distant destinations, you can open these bottles closer to home and raise a glass to the beauty of nature. Kanpai!
Japanese for “alcohol”, the word sake generally refers to Japan’s most famous traditional alcoholic beverage. While described as a “rice wine” it’d be closer to a very strong beer, as it is the result of the fermentation of a starch-rich polished rice. The alcohol content tends to range between 15 to 18% and is transparent or almost transparent. Just like wine, it might be dry or sweet. There are sake-based flavoured drinks and cocktails, however, the flavour of classic sake should be subtle, and the feeling of alcohol smooth.
€12.24 – Available at Asia Market
Hakutsuru is Japan’s number one top selling sake brand. This sake is a good initiation to the drink. Transparent and medium bodied, it has delicate aromas of rose apple and cotton. Best served chilled.
It’s dry and mild on the palate, low in acidity and with a pleasant smoothness. It’s also excellent value.
Akashi-Tai Honjozo Sake
€25.99 – Available at the Celtic Whiskey Shop
Light and subtle, this is a more upscale sake and one to serve at room temperature or slightly refreshed. Not too dry, not too sweet, it’s balanced and delicate.
Medium bodied and clear, it is made with high quality rice grown in the vicinity of the brewery, the yamada-nishiki variety, which is consider one of the finest.
€6.05 – Available at Asia Market
This sparkling rosé is an unusual sake-based drink. Light guava coloured, it has a lively fizz and the tone comes from a small amount of red wine used to make it blush.
Ideal to enjoy very chilled, it has delicate raspberry and rose apple notes.
Plum wine (or plum sake) is made with fresh plums, no grapes involved. Tends to be semi-sweet or sweet and has a mild acidity. In Japan, it is known as umeshu, “ume” being “plum” and “shu” meaning “liquor”. Ume plums, the variety of choice are closer to nectarines and apricots than to plums. They’re small and yellowish-green in colour. Due to their astringency, they are not meant to be eaten raw, but in preserves, drinks and pickled, they offer an intense and characteristic taste.
Hakutsuru Plum Wine
€15.95 – Available at Asia Market
Aromatic and with the sweetness of juicy, ripe white peaches. Succulent and with low acidity.
Ideal as an aperitif or with dessert and best served chilled (although sipping it on the rocks on a sunny day is also very recommendable).
Korea’s distilled rice liquor usually comes in a distinctive green 375 ml bottle and its ABV usually ranges between 17% to 25%, with the most common percentage being 20. It’s clear and with a very subtle palate, and while it has the strength of a fortified wine, you’d think it’s milder as it’s dangerously easy to drink.
Distilled in a similar fashion as vodka (and not uncommon for rice to be accompanied -sometimes even replaced- by potatoes or cereals), it has a history that traces back to around 1300 AC and in recent years it has experienced a growing popularity overseas, thanks partly to the phenomenon of K-pop, in fact it might not feel like it, but Soju is nowadays one of the world’s most sold alcoholic drinks, and Jinro, the biggest brand features consistently in the top ten of most popular bottles on earth.
Available at Asia Market
A mild soju made by Lotte Liquor, a distillery founded in 1926 and second leading producer of the drink. Clear and shy on the nose, and with a smooth palate.
Alkaline water lightens the base spirit and confers it with a delicate minerality that evokes a cool water spring.
Chinese for white liquor, Baijiu is a millennia old Chinese spirit produced in the provinces of Sichuan and Guizhou and made from one of a combination of cereals (sorghum, wheat, rice, sticky rice and/or corn). Instead of relying on yeast for fermenting, it uses a process called solid fermentation, and a fermenting agent called Qu. It’s a colourless liquor with purity and intensity, as well as a high ABV. While it might sound obscure, Baijiu is one of the world’s best selling alcoholic beverages, thanks to domestic consumption.
Kweichow Maothaizen 3 Year Old Baijiu
€138 (£120) – Available at Harvey Nichols
Not an easy one to find in Ireland, they’ll ship it for free for collection at their Dublin outlet. It’s a Moutai, a super-premium type of Baijiu, coming only from the eponymous region.
It’s made from wheat and sorghum, with a nutty tone and a funky umami character. It is meant to be served warm or, if accompanied by food, at room temperature.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.