Recently, while conducting some, uh, research into Japanese alcoholic beverages, I was surprised to notice that the alcohol content of canned chuhai cocktails varies significantly by flavor. The grape-flavored chuhai I was imbibing contained 5 percent alcohol, while the lemon version of the same brand packed appreciably more punch at 7 percent. What the heck is that? And while you ‘re at it, what the heck is a chuhai? The nomenclature seems to cover a huge range of drinks, but darned if I know what’s in ’em.
Randall E., Tokyo
I must confess that I myself have never partaken of the pleasures of chuhai, being a strictly beer-wine-sake-whiskey-and-oh-don’t- forget-champagne kind of gal. But in the spirit of, uh, research, I headed over to my local convenience store and ventured into unknown aisles. And you’re right — the charge in chuhai products varies from 4 to 7 percent alcohol.
Before we go into why, I should explain that the word chuhai is one of those colloquial contractions that takes a two-word phrase — usually including one or more loan words from English — and chops it down into something shorter and snappier. Examples are rimokon for remote control and sekuhara for sexual harassment. In a similar fashion, chuhai was created with the second syllable of the Japanese word shochu and the first syllable of the English word highball, as in the cocktail.
Chuhai, which you also see written in roman letters as chuhi and chu-hi, is a mixed drink that appeared shortly after World War II, when alcohol was in short supply. Whiskey was truly a luxury, and most drinkers had to settle for shochu, an inexpensive spirit that can be distilled from just about anything you might have lying around your kitchen. Sweet potatoes are common as the base ingredient, but the legal definition permits the use of wheat, barley, brown sugar, buckwheat, sesame, chestnuts and even milk. Shochu can also be made from rice, but the process is different from that used to make sake and the finished product comes out stronger and less fruity.
In the last five or so years, shochu has gotten trendy and is often of high quality. But in the chaotic postwar period it was usually foul-tasting hooch of dubious origin. To make it go down easier, the street stalls and saloons that served it started mixing it with soda water and calling it a “shochu highball,” or chuhai, for short. The concoction spread quickly, with variations made by adding fruit juice, flavored syrup or tea.
The first ready-to-drink chuhai product to retail in stores (rather than bars) was released in 1983 by a company called Toyo Shuzo, with the catchy brand name of “hiLicky.” (Later, the company merged with Asahi Kasei and the can now reads “hiLiki.”) It was a big hit with young people, and the success of the product encouraged other manufacturers to enter the market with their own canned and bottled versions. These days, chuhai has matured into a 600,000 kiloliters per year product, which, if my calculations are correct, means Japanese consumers are knocking back 1.7 billion cans every year. That ‘s still less than a tenth of the beer market, but chuhai is gaining steadily. Among women in their 20s, chuhai has elbowed aside beer as the preferred drink.
The beautiful irony here is that the best-selling canned chuhai, Kirin’s Hyoketsu brand, isn ‘t even made with shochu, but vodka. Nevertheless, I took your question over to Kirin because I figured the market leader ought to know a thing or two about chuhai. Brand manager Kunihiko Kadota assured me that canned cocktails made with vodka and wine are just as much chuhai as those made with shochu, and explained that there are two reasons why alcohol content varies by flavor.
“The first, and most important reason, is taste,” Kadota told me. “Strong citrus flavors like lemon and grapefruit, which are the two most popular flavors for all chuhai drinks, go very well with alcohol and seem to demand a higher alcohol content for good balance,” Kadota said. “We do make citrus flavors with lower alcohol content, but most drinkers, and men in particular, prefer the higher alcohol versions.
“On the other hand, what we call ‘soft-fruit’ flavors, including grape, apple and peach, are less assertive and can’t handle 6 or 7 percent alcohol,” he explained. “Those drinks would taste too strong with that much alcohol. And customers who gravitate to these flavors, usually women, prefer a drink they won’t feel as fast. So that’s the other reason we vary the alcohol content of products in our brand: to satisfy consumers who want a less alcoholic drink as well as those who want a drink with more kick.”
If you want a really high-octane chuhai, you’ll have to make your own. A canned or bottled product with 9 percent alcohol or higher is subject to a higher tax. That’s something manufacturers want to avoid, because part of the appeal of chuhai is its relative low cost. A 350-ml can retails for ¥140-150, compared to roughly ¥160 for happoshu (low-malt beer-like beverages) and ¥220 for beer. The main reason for the price differential is tax; beer has the highest rate among the three.
If you’d like to do some more, uh, research, how about going in search of an authentic old-time chuhai as they were made in the immediate postwar period? Though lots of bars offer what’s called a ganso (original) chuhai, why not head straight to the source — the area in eastern Tokyo along the Keisei train lines, which is supposedly where chuhai originated? A good place to start might be Sanyu Sakaba (Yahiro 2-2-12, Sumida-ku;  3610-0793) near Keisei Hikibune Station on the Keisei Line. It’s one of three or four drinking dens that claim to have invented the chuhai.