Hoppy, Denki Bran and Hoisu: 3 unique Tokyo drinks
Tokyo is a city of many things, but it isn't traditionally viewed as a place with a thriving scene for local liquors. Sure, there are thousands upon thousands of watering holes, but the beers are generally national megabrews and most sake and shochu hails from other parts of the country.
Yet there are a few -- a precious few -- purely local spirits worth a look for anyone who considers themselves a true Tokyoite. Read on for a rundown of three three drinks you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere but in Japan's capital city, in ascending order of difficulty.
1. Hoppy: Ersatz beer
Hoppy is a fizzy brew made from water, barley, hops and yeast. Coming in both regular and black, it's just like beer -- just with a mere 0.8% alcohol. If this doesn't sound like a particularly thrilling way to start an evening, never fear: Hoppy isn't meant to be chugged solo.
Developed in the late 1940s -- when many Japanese could barely afford food, let alone beer and whisky -- Hoppy was intended to be mixed in a 4:1 ratio with bottom-shelf shochu liquor to create a cheap substitute beer. Even now, a single bottle of Hoppy can be used to "charge" several refills of shochu-filled beer mugs, making it significantly cheaper than beer over the course of an evening.
Hoppy's fanbase was once exclusively older salarymen, blue-collar workers and retirees, but these days the drink has taken off among twenty to thirty-somethings nostalgic for a postwar era they never experienced first-hand. Hoppy is the ultimate "Showa chic" drink.
Trivia: Low-carb Hoppy's big claim to fame is that it doesn't fill you up as readily as beer, making it easier to "session drink" over the course of an evening. Just watch those shochu refills -- they get bigger as the night goes on. Trust me.
2. Denki Bran: Asakusa "brandy"
Denki Bran liqueur debuted in the late 19th century and is an all-original creation of Asakusa's legendary Kamiya Bar. A mixture of brandy, gin, vermouth and herbs, it's a syrupy-sweet liquid that shares more in common with herbal concoctions like Jägermeister than actual brandy. Still, it goes down nice and smooth -- especially with a cheap beer chaser, which is the way it's traditionally slammed (er, we mean, enjoyed.)
Two strengths are available, a 30% by volume version for neophytes and a 40% "Old" version for old-timers. More good news: Denki Bran is also sold by the bottle, perfect for those moonlit nights spent sleeping on a sheet of cardboard alongside the Sumida River.
Trivia: Why the reference to "denki" (電気, electricity) in the name? During this fine spirit's debut in the 1880s, "electricity" was the buzzword of the day. Had this liqueur come out in the 1990s, it'd undoubtedly have been called "Cyber Bran."
3. Hoisu: An extremely poor man's whiskey
Appropriately dubbed "the phantom liquor," Hoisu may be the single most difficult Japanese alcoholic beverage to find in Tokyo. If Hoppy is a cheap beer simulacrum, Hoisu is the impoverished version of a whiskey-less mizu-wari.
Concocted during the 1950s to hide the sharp taste and aroma of cheap shochu, the non-alcoholic elixir is intended to be drunk in 4:6:10 ratio of Hoisu, liquor and soda water. Unlike Hoppy and Denki Bran, Hoisu was never more than a wholesale product, so it never achieved mainstream popularity, even during in its heyday.
These days Hoisu is a rare beast, only available at a handful of izakayas in the city. (We recommend Genpach in Shimokitazawa, Lotus Heights 1F, Kitazawa 2-13-14, Setagaya-ku, tel. 03 5430 2343)
The flavor of Hoisu? When mixed with soda and shochu, the taste is subtle bordering on nonexistent. Even when drunk straight -- which is never, ever done -- the effect is only mildly herbal, with slight tones of citrus. Like cough syrup minus the taste -- or a promise of hallucinations.
Trivia: In spite of its Tokyo origins, Hoisu is actually the most "international" of the three drinks -- based on Russian vodka and wine infused with "South American invigorants" (don't ask).