Hoisu: The phantom Japanese sake that can’t be purchased in stores

Hoisu Whis phantom sake Japan unusual drinks izakaya Tokyo taste test photo review

A unique, hard-to-find drink only ordered by those in the know at some izakaya taverns.

In Japan, the word “sake” (” 酒”) is used to refer to alcoholic drinks, with “日本酒” (“nihonshu”, literally “Japanese alcohol”) being the word used for Japanese rice wine, known overseas as “sake”.

So when a drink becomes known as a “phantom sake” in Japan, it’s not necessarily referring to “sake” as it’s known overseas but rather a phantom type of alcohol, and in this case, what that alcohol is is just as much a mystery as where you can get it.

Called “Hoisu“, this is a drink that flies so low under the radar even sake aficionados may never have heard of it. Our own sake-loving reporter K. Masami hadn’t known of its existence until the other day, when she visited an izakaya tavern in Osaka’s Namba district and saw a small sign advertising it as “Hoisu: The phantom shochu highball known by those in the know“.

Hoisu Whis phantom sake Japan unusual drinks izakaya Tokyo taste test photo review

Masami wanted to be amongst those in the know, so she called a waiter over and ordered it. While she wanted to ask staff about it before she tried it, the place was bustling with customers so she decided against asking them as she didn’t want to take up their time by asking questions.

When she did order it, the waiter smiled for a moment and called out to the kitchen, “Order for a Hoisu!” in a loud voice that rang out above the din of the restaurant. That smile she saw on the waiter’s lips made her think this was one of their favourite drinks as well, so she was even more excited to try it.

▼ Behold, the phantom sake, Hoisu!

The Hoisu was pale amber in colour, resembling a whiskey highball but slightly different. The scent was sweet, but not strong, and when she took a sip of it, she was surprised to find it had a rather mellow taste. While she could detect some different profiles, including a slight spiciness, it didn’t hit her with a strong punch like one might expect from a highball.

Taking another sip, she began to taste something that resembled Denki Bran (“Electric Brandy“, an herbaceous brandy drink created in Japan in 1882). It had a refreshing aftertaste that would pair well with any kind of cuisine, but she still couldn’t tell exactly what it was, so she looked closer at the promotional sign for it and found some QR codes. Scanning them took her to the manufacturer’s official social media accounts, and from there she began her deep dive into what this alcohol was actually about.

First off, the product is made by a company called Goto Shoten, located in Shirokane, Tokyo. Created in 1944 by the grandfather of the current proprietor, Hoisu was born out of a desire to revitalise restaurants after the devastation of World War II. The recipe and ingredients used are a trade secret, passed down from generation to generation with only one person, the current proprietor, now knowing the recipe.

The grandfather who created Hoisu had owned a liquor store before the war and wanted to recreate the flavour of a Western liquor he’d drunk in Europe. That liquor is rumoured to have been whisky, which is pronounced “hoisuki” in Japanese, hence the name “Hoisu”. While Hoisu is said to contain 0.2-percent alcohol, making it more like a mixer, it’s been dubbed a “phantom sake” due to its rarity and the fact that its ingredients are a closely guarded secret.

As it contains dozens of mystery ingredients — some of which were sourced by the creator during his travels along the Trans-Siberian railway — the taste is said to be difficult to describe, with many simply calling it “Hoisu” flavour. Others liken it to a light ginger ale, while others say it’s like a plum wine, but with a citrusy, herbaceous profile.

According to reports, the company only makes 720 litres (190 gallons) of Hoisu a day, selling it exclusively to a limited number of restaurants that they have long-standing relationships with. Supplies are so limited that the proprietor refrains from advertising it and declines interviews and new business offers. However, the owner did introduce the manufacturing process in a 2021 video for Minato Ward, where Shirokane is located, with the ingredients pixelated for secrecy.

▼ This video was made to help revitalise restaurants during the pandemic.

According to the manufacturer, Hoisu is designed to be enjoyed as a highball, with the ideal ratio being two parts Hoisu, three parts shochu (distilled alcohol), and five parts carbonated water. You won’t ever need to know how to make it, though, seeing as it’s not sold through retail outlets and the only way to get a taste of it is by having staff make it for you at an izakaya.

In an age where everything is easily available on the Internet, this is one drink that requires you to go out and physically search for it. According to the company that makes it, this is all part of the fun of the drink, and they say the fun continues after you’ve found it, when you can then try to imagine what kinds of ingredients went into its making.

Finding Hoisu is about as hard as finding a Yamazaki whisky highball in a can right now, but if you are lucky enough to come across the phantom drink — checking the hashtag “#ホイス” online might help you on your journey — it’ll be a taste worth savouring.

Related: Goto Shoten “Hoisu”
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