Book Review: The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks

Editor’s Note: This book was provided to us as a review sample by Tuttle Publishing. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.

Before picking up The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, I knew only a few things about whiskies from the island nation.

  1. Most are Scotch-style, made with malted barley.
  2. There’s a well-known but possibly apocryphal story about the godfather of Japanese whiskies, who supposedly studied in Scotland and brought that distilling culture back home.
  3. All the Japanese whiskies imported to the United States, at least, tend to be good. More than once, I’ve said to friends, “If you see a bottle of Japanese whisky at a bar – any bottle – go ahead and try it. You won’t be disappointed.”

English journalist Chris Bunting worked from Tokyo from 2017 to 2012, during which time he started a blog on Japanese whiskies and wrote the book Drinking Japan. His premise was that Japan had the best drinking culture in the world, and the book project gave him an excuse to drink his way across the country and pinpoint all the best bars.

American Stephen Lyman, an epidemiologist who lives in Japan half the year and likes to call himself a “booze nerd,” has been trying to convince Bunting to update Drinking Japan for a while. Bunting counter-offered: Using the previous book as a base, the two of them could update it together. The result is The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, focused on the history and norms of Japanese drinking traditions – whether or not you go to Japan to enjoy them.

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The book is well written and stuffed with interesting historical tidbits. (I learned where “proofing” alcohol came from, among other things. And that the story about Japanese whisky pioneer Masataka Taketsuru is not apocryphal.) If you’re curious about Japanese history and culture, and interested in its centuries-long relationship with various kinds of booze, you’ll enjoy the heck out of this book.

I think this would be a superb addition to the coffee table of any Japanophile. That said, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks suffers from one great flaw: It dabbles in a whole lot of things rather than focusing on any single thing. There are sections on sake, shochu, awamori, umeshu, whisky, beer, wine and cocktails. If you really want to dive deep into any of them and the cultures around them, however, you’ll have to go elsewhere. This is more like a one-shot pour than a full bottle if what you’re really interested in, for example, is Japanese whiskies.

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Scott Bernard Nelson

Reporting and writing has taken Scott Bernard Nelson all over the world, giving him an opportunity to cover everything from 9/11 to an Olympic Games to the invasion of Iraq. These days, he’s retired from daily journalism but still enjoys talking with interesting people and writing fun stories. When he’s...