As temperatures begin to creep out of frigid territory across the U.S., thoughts are slowly shifting away from fireside tipples towards more refreshing fare to drink as the first flowers begin to bud.
Sure, there are always Palomas or rosé (the safest bet of all), but my vote for the ideal, light-and-buzzy sipper of Spring 2016 is chuhai.
A catchy mish-mash of the words “shochu” and “highball,” chuhai or chuhi is a staple at izakayas across Japan, combining the earthy, distilled spirit shochu (which is typically made from barley, rice, or sweet potato and has roughly 25% ABV) with fruity-flavored, carbonated soda water. Whipped up either fresh — cocktail-style — on-site for thirsty imbibers or prepackaged in cans and sold out of vending machines, chuhai’s relatively low price point, bubbly charm and low-to-middling ABV (anywhere between 2-9%) has made it a favorite for penny-pinching session drinkers looking to pace themselves over the course of an evening.
Chuhai is also highly diverse and customizable to almost any taste — so long as you enjoy a sweeter beverage — with flavors ranging from classics like lemon and grapefruit to ume (salty plum) and cherry blossom. Simple enough to make on the fly and easily batched (even in their non-can form), chuhai might just be the perfect cocktail for helping loll away an afternoon of day drinking.
Chuhai flavors range from classics like lemon and grapefruit, to ume (salty plum) and cherry blossom. Photo courtesy of Yardbird.
My first sip of chuhai wasn’t in Tokyo, but Hong Kong, a city with a cocktail scene that’s growing and diversifying at a seemingly breakneck pace. It’s also a place where the influence of Japanese drinking culture is increasingly visible, from the handsome elegance of Butler Bar in Tsim Sha Tsui to cans of sunny-flavored chuhai readily available for grab-and-stroll consumption at 7-Elevens on seemingly every corner. At the much-lauded restaurant Yardbird, a crisp, low-fuss version of chuhai is muddled on site, the combination of shochu with a fresh citrus juice du jour makes it the ideal liquid companion while snacking on yakatori chicken gizzards.
I was smitten.
As I left Yardbird the night after my first date with chuhai, it was apparent to anyone who watched me float down the street that I had developed a crush — only this time, the object of my affection was a drink.
It would be easy to dismiss chuhai — especially the prepackaged version — as a kind of Japanese Mike’s Hard Lemonade or Smirnoff copycat, erroneously placing it in the same Ready to Drink (RTD) canned cocktail family that values mass production over freshness and balanced flavor. Increasingly, though, chuhai has started to gain a small, but mighty, following in the U.S., breaking down this stereotype and proving naysayers wrong one mug at a time.
At the much-lauded restaurant Yardbird, a crisp, low-fuss version of chuhai is muddled on site, the combination of shochu with a fresh citrus juice du jour. Photo courtesy of Yardbird.
Earlier this year, I was overjoyed to stumble upon a chuhai option — grapefruit — at the hole-in-the-wall Japanese whisky den Tanuki in Portland. In the electric glow of pinball machine light, Tanuki’s reputation for pushing boundaries made it seem totally normal to be served a spiced plum and sparkling wine cocktail while a Japanese horror movie was projected on the ceiling. Similarly, the bar’s chuhai (described on the menu as “Japanese malt liquor”) is concocted in an outside-the-box fashion, combined with celery salt bitters and a squeeze of lime for an unexpected, spicy punch.
In New York, there are at least a handful of chuhai variations at most izakayas, from a quirky version featuring tamarind and lime at Brooklyn’s Bar Chuko, to oolong or green tea types at Azasu (pictured below). A few Americanized, pre-packaged versions are cropping up at Japanese markets as well, like the pastel-hued Takara Can Chu-Hi JPop (in grapefruit and white peach, respectively) which can be found fairly easily at Marukai shops in Los Angeles.
As the liquor industry’s fascination with well-made RTD cocktails continues to surge (from Charles Joly’s Crafthouse Cocktails to Fluid Dynamics’ bottled Brandy Manhattan), I’d like to imagine chuhai carving out its own space within both the world of RTD drinks and barroom culture beyond izakayas. Chuhai, perhaps, can help lead the attitude shift towards pre-canned beverages, proving that these concoctions are neither novel nor drinks that should be easily dismissed.
Chuhai is a staple at izakayas across Japan, combining the earthy, distilled spirit shochu with fruity-flavored, carbonated soda water. In New York, there are at least a handful of chuhai variations at most izakayas, from a like oolong and green tea types at Azasu. Photo courtesy of Azasu.