(2022 Edition) 10 Cheap Japanese Chuhai You Can Buy at Convenience Stores
Whether you’re anticipating a big night out or relaxing evening at home, Japan’s legendary “chuhai” alcoholic beverages offer a thrifty and delicious way to drink. With a profusion of tantalizing flavors and ABVs (alcohol by volume) suiting all palates and drinking styles, it’s no wonder that liquor sections across shops in Japan are now dominated by the colorful chuhai can. In this article, we’ll introduce some popular Japanese chuhai along with the history behind the drink and a recipe to make your own at home!
Apr 01 2022 (May 12 2022)
What Is a Chuhai?
Chuhai is a kind of Japanese cocktail generally made by mixing “shochu,” a traditional Japanese distilled alcohol somewhat similar to vodka, with carbonated water. The word “chuhai” is a portmanteau of “shochu” and “highball,” the latter being a cocktail of whiskey and soda. While easy enough to mix at home, ready-to-drink canned chuhai sold at stores remain extremely popular in Japan for their taste, quality, and extraordinarily low price - often selling for just 150 yen or less a pop!
A popular chuhai subcategory is the “sour,” which adds a helping of fruit juice and sweetener to make it even easier on the taste buds. The most common flavor by far is lemon, followed by offerings like mango, lime, grapefruit, pickled plum, kiwi, and even green tea. Owing to this trend, many modern brands of canned chuhai have opted to switch to vodka and other spirits as their base, such as the infamous Strong Zero, due to it having a smoother and less intensive flavor than shochu.
The modern canned chuhai market is exceptionally competitive, with dozens of brands developing a broad selection catering to every corner of the market. Many will also release new or limited-edition, seasonal flavors to vie for the attention of consumers and stand out amongst competitors.
Along with being cheap, canned chuhai are notorious for their potent alcohol content, with many reaching a 9% ABV - equal to nearly four shots of tequila! Many travelers to Japan have ended the night with their face in the toilet bowl owing to these drinks, making it vital to proceed with caution and not be misled by the cheerful designs and mild flavors. However, despite this reputation, there are just as many low-alcohol chuhai with ABVs as weak as 3%, making them even milder than most beers. Plus, many brands have developed zero or reduced sugar/calorie versions, which are ideal for those looking to lower their sugar intake.
The History of Chuhai
Shochu is believed to have been brewed in Japan since around the 15th century, with distillation techniques originally brought over from mainland Asia. Originally made with rice, shochu has since expanded to barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, muscovado, and more. While sweetening shochu with syrup was somewhat common before WWII, the trend of diluting it with carbonated water to create a “shochu highball” is said to have started in the 1940s.
Predecessors to the modern chuhai were served as cocktails in local “izakaya” taverns and bars, particularly around the downtown areas of Tokyo. Modern canned chuhai started to grow in popularity during the 1980s, with the release of “Takohai” by Suntory in 1983 and “Takara Can Chuhai” by Takara in 1984 kicking things into gear. These basic mixes grew more diverse in the 1990s as fruity canned cocktails emerged on the market, such as the peach-flavored “Peachtree Fizz.”
However, the true fruit chuhai revolution came with the release of Kirin’s “Hyoketsu” in 2001, which utilized the innovative technique of freezing fruit juice directly after squeezing for maximum freshness. Since then, canned chuhai has been all about fruitiness, with the original dry flavors still available but relegated to the back shelf. Meanwhile, the “strong” canned chuhai with 9% ABVs are a more recent trend spearheaded by Kirin’s “Hyoketsu Strong” in 2008 followed by Suntory’s Strong Zero in 2009 - just in time to drown the sorrows of the financial crisis.
The 10 Best Japanese Chuhai for a Delicious Buzz!
Part 1: The Strong and Powerful
Otoko Ume Sour (男梅サワー)
Otoko Ume Sour ramps the “sour” factor up to the next level with a mouth-scrunching yet remarkably delicious pickled plum canned chuhai. “Otoko Ume” is actually a line of sour candy manufactured by NOBEL Confectionery flavored with “umeboshi,” a kind of astringent pickled plum popular in Japan. Sapporo partnered with NOBEL to devise an original Otoko Ume chuhai made by soaking crushed umeboshi in alcohol to thoroughly absorb their flavor and fragrance. Along with the standard 350 ml size, a 500 ml can and 500 ml concentrated mixer is also available.
Lemon-do boasts a raw, natural flavor replicating the taste of a fresh lemon cocktail at an izakaya. The classy, understated cans work to catch the eye against flamboyant competitors while the sizable range of ABVs cater to a diverse market. The generous helping of juice from grated lemons soaked in alcohol yields an energizing zest, tasting as if you’ve just squeezed them yourself. Complementing the standard Lemon Sour are other tantalizing alternatives like salted lemon, honey lemon, and the intimidating “Demon Lemon” with a formidable 9% ABV. Also available are 500 ml cans and a 300 ml concentrated mixer.
-196℃ Strong Zero
Strong Zero is the most famous (and notorious) chuhai in Japan. With a whopping 9% ABV concealed by delectable fruity flavors, it’s no surprise that many get caught out downing a few before a wave of drunkenness hits like a bulldozer. Suntory has innovated tirelessly to balance the pleasant, crisp flavor with a heavy alcohol content, finally achieving this seemingly impossible feat by flash freezing fruit with liquid nitrogen at −196 °C to lock in the flavor before smashing it into powder and soaking it in alcohol. The newer editions also have zero sugar and purine, making them ideal for those on a diet. The massive lineup and endless updates all but guarantee a new, yet-to-be-drunken Strong Zero on the shelves with each visit to Japan. 500 ml cans also available.
Kirin’s Hyoketsu is the main competitor to Strong Zero and the first ever high-ABV canned chuhai. Like Strong Zero, there is loads of variety and perpetual updates keeping the brand fresh. The tactile diamond-shaped bumps on the flashy can stand apart from its smooth-canned rivals while ensuring a sturdy grip - surprisingly helpful after you’ve had a few! It boasts strong carbonation and a refreshing, invigorating tang that’s gentle on the throat.
Hyoketsu is also flavored with frozen fruit (hence the name, which means “freezing” in Japanese) soaked in alcohol to deliver a commendable 4.2% fruit juice (Hyoketsu Zero Sicily Lemon). Setting it apart from Strong Zero is the availability of both high and low-alcohol mixes suiting a diversity of drinkers and occasions. Naturally, there are sugar-free and purine-free “Hyoketsu Zero” versions sold along with 500 ml cans.
Koji Lemon Sour (麹レモンサワー)
Released in 2020, Kirin’s Koji Lemon Sour is one of the newest chuhai on the market. It’s flavored with lemon blended with “koji,” a type of mold used in Japan for sake brewing and more. Koji has been recently gaining newfound attention for its potential health benefits and ability to enhance existing flavors. Here, Kirin has used koji to draw out the essence of lemon, dull the alcoholic burn, and add a hint of savory “umami” uncommon in chuhai. The resulting Koji Lemon Sour brandishes fragrant lemon aromas with a mild, subdued taste lacking any hint of alcohol despite the high volume. 500 ml cans also available.
Takara Shochu Highball (焼酎ハイボール)
Takara, a leading shochu brewer and canned chuhai pioneer, has returned the beverage to its humble, old-school roots through retro cans and classic flavors with the “Shochu Highball” lineup. This no-frills selection captures the essence of the Japanese bar scene of the Showa period (1926-1989), where a chuhai was relished as an after-work treat at an izakaya.
Going against the grain, Takara has aimed the Shochu Highball at older, seasoned drinkers who can down hard liquor without batting an eyelid. The “dry” flavor suits those put off by fruity drinks, while the hefty range of flavored versions are equally refined and mild. Alongside staples like lemon and lime, Takara has experimented with unique ingredients rarely seen in chuhai, such as ramune, ginger, “shiso” beefsteak plant, yuzu, cider, and more. 500 ml cans are also available.
Kirin Tokusei (麒麟特製)
Kirin Tokusei is a set of “high-class” chuhai made with experimental techniques and premium ingredients, including soaking fruit in alcohol for 12+ hours and more. For those that miss party classics like Jack and Coke (which is not popular in Japan), the Kirin Tokusei “Cola Sour” is a worthy substitute albeit with a bit of an acidic aftertaste. Meanwhile, the unsweetened dry Tokusei is Kirin’s answer to the “Takara” crowd of older, experienced drinkers unfazed by alcohol. The series is also strongly carbonated, invigorating the senses and further concealing the hefty 9% ABV.
Part 2: The Light and Casual
While Hyoketsu and Strong Zero have pleasing fruity flavors, the tremendous alcohol content makes them a no-go for lighter drinkers. Many instead opt for “Horoyoi,” which means “tipsy” in English, for a fun and relaxing drink without the risk of going overboard. This hip brand heavily markets itself towards young, trendy women worried about the effects of alcohol. With a tiny ABV of just 3% and a jumble of enticing flavors, those who despise any semblance of alcohol will surely be tempted by one or two. Flavors include the yogurt-based Bikkle sour, honey-lemon, iced tea, cassis and orange, grapefruit and salt, and even vitamin C. Plus, they sell a 6-pack of 6 different flavors, so you won’t be stuck with the same taste the entire night!
Calpis Sour (カルピスサワー)
Calpis is a popular Japanese lactic acid soft drink with a sweet and milky flavor similar to Yakult. With over 100 years of history, it’s no surprise that it also became a popular mixer for chuhai and other cocktails. In response to growing demand, an official Calpis-based canned chuhai was released under the name “Calpis Sour” in 1994. The gentle 3% ABV and mild carbonation supplies an agreeable buzz with only a minimal change to the original flavor. For those tired of the same-old fruit-based chuhai, this is a worthy alternative!
Zeitaku Shibori (贅沢搾り)
Fruit-lovers unsatisfied by the mere 5% juice prevalent in chuhai, Asahi’s Zeitaku Shibori is for you. With cans almost half-filled with pure fruit juice alone, it blasts past competitors to unrivaled levels of 41% grapefruit, 31% peach, and more! This completely removes the taste of alcohol, making it almost indistinguishable from regular fruit juice. This is bolstered by the crisp, refreshing aftertaste, mild carbonation, and lack of artificial sweeteners, making it easy to drink several cans without growing tired. There are also limited edition, seasonal flavors like pineapple and mango along with the “Premium” and “Plus” range featuring ingredients like yogurt. 500 ml cans are also available.
*Prices listed were at the time of purchase and are not universal. Prices may change depending on the store and time.
Chuhai Recipe: How to Make Your Own Chuhai at Home
While canned chuhai is already dirt cheap, you can potentially save even more money while creating your own flavors by mixing chuhai at home. Here’s a recipe for a simple, izakaya-level chuhai you can enjoy anytime!
1. Purchase a bottle of shochu, preferably top-tier, high-purity “korui” shochu.
2. Get a bottle of soda, ideally with low mineral content and strong carbonation. Chill in the fridge.
3. Mix the chuhai and soda at a 4:6 ratio.
4. Add a helping of fruit juice or alternative flavor to taste (aim for a ratio of around 1:10 at first).
5. Add ice if you like.
6. Mix and enjoy!
There are also concentrated chuhai mixes sold at supermarkets, large liquor stores, and occasionally at convenience stores across Japan. These have an ABV of around 20-25% and can be directly diluted with soda water for instant chuhai at home. A 500 ml bottle will make roughly 10 standard glasses and sells for around 715 yen - making each glass just over 70 yen! (price depends on brand).
Chuhai - The Key to Fun and Relaxation in Japan
As you can see, Japan’s chuhai industry is far from monotonous. Years of R&D have cultivated a staggering range suiting virtually every kind of personality, drinking style, taste, and occasion. From crisp dries that knock you flat to juicy sweets for a mellow buzz, it’s no wonder more and more people in Japan are venturing from the beer, wine, and sake aisles into the vast and colorful world of chuhai. However, despite the diversity, what almost every one of these drinks has in common is the uncanny ability to mask the taste of alcohol, which can be dangerous, so stay sensible and drink in moderation!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.