Chu-Hi? Highball? Sour?

Watching what kind of drinks people order is always fascinating. Certainly you may say it depends on the atmosphere, the company, the choice of food and 50 other things. So let’s narrow it down: you are arriving to an izakaya with a few close friends on a causal weekday – let’s make it a Thursday – what would be your first drink before looking at the food menu?

My assumption was that 99% of the guys would go for a beer, while girls would split between beer and cocktails. Interestingly, “Chu-Hi” was among the top ranks in both sexes. What gives?

Most reasoned that the freshening quality from the combination of fruit juice and soda water was the determining factor. But did you know, initially Chu-Hi was not composed of any fruit juice or syrup, or even vodka or other liqueur as we know?

The history of Chu-Hi goes back to pre-WWII Japan, when the original drink was coined “Shochu Highball” (焼酎ハイボール). A highball is referred to a mixed drink made of alcoholic base spirit and non-alcoholic parts, with “Whiskey Highball” being one of the most famous examples. The term* originated in the UK then brought to the US in late 1800s, and eventually to Japan in the 1930s by the occupation troops in Tokyo.

*There are different versions of the term’s etymology. While the UK and the US sides often point to locomotive terminologies of the era or the use of tall glass for the drink, Japanese versions vary from baseball-related to the way carbonated bubbles ascend in the drink.

Once rooted, whiskey in the Whiskey Highball was replaced by shochu for its affordability, and localized versions using plum or grape syrup instead of carbonated water started to appear. The drink was quickly spread from the Tokyo downtown area, with the name shortened to catchy [Sho-] CHU-HI [-ghball] (酎ハイ/ チューハイ).

Some say Chu-Hi marked the beginning of the Tokyo izakaya boom that rode through the post-war/ Showa period, or even go so far to call it a representative of the Tokyo common folks’ drinking culture. Popularity of the drink continued into the 1980s, where izakayas competed to come up with original recipes using altered liqueur or juice or soft drink choices. Like everything that is demanded, big corporations such as Asahi (then 東洋醸造; acquired by Asahi brewery) saw the opportunity and started mass producing their own canned version. And this has pretty much set the Chu-Hi scene we see today.

Despite its universalness in Japan, Chu-Hi does not have an agreed industry definition or even a legal identity. It is loosely referred to distilled liqueur-based drinks with low alcohol contents (below 10° in average). In terms of the Liquor Tax Act – because of the possibility of ingredients that can go into a Chu-Hi – it can be defined as a liqueur, a spirit or other form of carbonated alcoholic drink (“その他の発泡性酒類”), making taxation of what is a “Chu-Hi” utterly difficult.

Some ask, what about “Sour” (サワー) that we also see on izakaya menus? Say, why is it “Grapefruit Chu-Hi” in one store and “Grapefruit Sour” in another, when they kind of taste or look the same…?

Indeed, a Chu-Hi and a Sour might be the same low-alcohol carbonated drink these days, and it is just the restaurant or the producer’s choice of names. But strictly/ historically speaking, if Chu-Hi was shochu diluted with carbonated water, a Sour would require a fruit juice further added to that mixture. Or as some known dictionary puts it, a Sour is a sour cocktail made of distilled liqueur and fruit juice such as lemon juice. Not untrue, but too literal; I would go for the former.

So if we loosen up and just look at Chu-Hi as a drink: it is inexpensive, refreshing and easy to drink and it never lacks variety. Wine connoisseurs might desert it as being too artificial or lacking of depth. But considering its story behind – or rather the warming weather – a Chu-Hi just sounds as good to me! 

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