Strong Zero is starting to become something of a “Japan legend” in a lot of corners of the internet I frequent. For a paltry 100 yen at any convenience store, this fiendishly easy-drinking shochu cocktail will hit you as hard as three cheap beers. Have two of them too fast — and this is a very easy mistake to make — and you’re going to be sloppy on two bucks. Strong Zero reaches an unbeatable sweet spot for cash to flavor to raw booze content. It’s kind of ascending to infamy as more foreigner subculture groups discover it; among others I’ve personally noticed Anitwitter and the fighting game community begin to sing its praises.
As an American, imagine if a wave of Japanese otaku tourists came to the States and became obsessed with Four Loko, and you start to get the idea. By the way, Four Loko is still stronger than Strong Zero by an order of magnitude. Plus you get the added bonus of lots of sugar that is going to dehydrate you and lead to a brutal hangover. (This is why we avoid sugary alcoholic sodas like Mike’s Hard and so on!)
A couple of years ago I hit up a convention after-party that was specifically advertising having an open bar with Strong Zero. I hadn’t bothered trying it at this point, so I figured now was the time and paid the modest cover charge. At the makeshift hotel suite bar, I was greeted by a bartender who didn’t seem to realize he would have to serve people he didn’t know personally. The Strong Zero was a guarded treasure and I didn’t know the guy you were supposed to know in order to get one. I didn’t budge — what the hell? I already paid to get into this party and I want a damn drink! — and managed to get dealt in on rounds of shots that he was pouring for his friends.
(Don’t advertise an open bar and then only pour for your friends, lame-ass.)
When I told people this story in Japan, they laughed hysterically across the board at the absurdity of the situation. “Seriously?! Strong Zero?!” Strong Zero is not good enough to be the liquor you have to “know somebody” to get at the party. It’s not some friggin’ high-end Suntory whiskey, it’s a cheap, smooth alcohol bomb. The mezcal shot I got out of my stubborn bartender was way better! Do not jump through hoops to get a can of Strong Zero. It costs 100 yen, and 100 yen is all you should be paying for it. Have it when you’re traveling in Japan. Don’t import a case of Strong Zero.
あの、ファミチキ 一つと。。。これ。(Gimme one Family Mart Chicken and… this.”)
The reason Strong Zero is so convenient in Japan has to do with the country itself. Beer ingredients, particularly malt, are taxed pretty heavily in Japan. So a cheap beer like a Sapporo or Kirin is still 250 yen a can, with a sixer costing around 1200 yen. That’s about what you’d pay for a fancy craft brew in the States. There’s no super-cheapo like Bud Light… or rather, the very cheapest beers are strange concoctions that fly beneath the very definition of “beer” itself in order to evade the taxes on malt. Craft beer is starting to be a thing in Japan, but the prices are high.
If you’re looking for a decent cash-to-alcohol ratio, it’s a lot more likely to be liquor. Cheap whisky, sake, and shochu are all readily available in every convenience store, as well as the mixed drinks we’ve been discussing. (This is so dangerous, by the way.)
A highball is a common treat at any restaurant, and your local convenience store will have a wall of them. This is whisky cut down by half with a seltzer; an easy, light and refreshing drink that packs a punch. Strong Zero is a “chu-hi”: a highball made with shochu. Throw a little lemon flavoring in there and you’ve got a really nice “one last drink” for the night that will probably help put you to sleep to boot. I never got myself dead drunk in Japan, but often my roomies and I would grab a highball for that last talk before we all went to bed.
The other reason Strong Zero is so convenient is that you can drink in public in Japan. As is well publicized, it’s actually a nation with an epidemic of sloppy drunks. Don’t become one of them, but one nice thing we would all do was gather in one of the big spaces around Akiba station and sip Strong Zeroes in the chilly weather outside while enjoying the scenery and waiting for the moment right before the last train to split up and go back to our respective places. It’s just one can, so you don’t exactly have to clean up a picnic, and that much alcohol is more than enough.
I can’t count the amount of times I was on my way home and I’d pick up a single cheap highball. It was just a perfect way to end the night. I didn’t usually go so far as a Strong Zero in these cases, though…
The thing you need when you’re drinking in Japan is “Ukon no Chikara” or THE POWER OF TURMERIC. Down one of these little gold cans, prominently places in most Japanese convenience stores, and you will simply not have a hangover. You will wake up like nothing ever happened. Trust me on this one; I’d get some for home but the prices are outrageous. Don’t import cases of Strong Zero. Make your own chu-his and reverse-engineer Ukon no Chikara. Then send me the recipe.
Edit 2/12/18: I don’t have hangovers anymore because I bought a bottle of turmeric pills and take one every time I drink, either before or after. I now fully understand the power of turmeric.
Edit 12/3/18: How on earth did this become the top result for “strong zero” on Google? Suntory, feel free to sponsor me.
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