Strong Zero is an alcoholic beverage in Japan that has gained a cult following from natives and tourists alike. Long considered a convenience store staple, Strong Zero is named such due to its “zero” sugar content and “strong” ABV. A precursor to White Claw, and a cousin of Four Loko, Strong Zero has Americans begging for its arrival overseas.
What Is Strong Zero?
Strong Zero is a canned chūhai beverage. Chūhai is an abbreviation for “shōchū highball”. A highball is traditionally a mixed drink that uses an alcoholic base, and a higher percentage of a non-alcoholic mixer.
Shōchū is no more than 45% alcohol by volume, and is usually distilled from rice, barley, buckwheat, sweet potato, or brown sugar. It is weaker than vodka or whiskey, but stronger than wine or sake. In the past, shōchū has been viewed as an old-fashioned drink, but is now popular amongst young drinkers, in large part due to drinks like Strong Zero.
A shōchū highball, or chūhai, would have a pretty low alcohol content if prepared in a restaurant or bar. However, the canned version of these beverages sold in vending machines or at convenience stores can have up to 12% ABV. Strong Zero carries a 9% ABV, and while that may not sound like a lot, one can is roughly equivalent to drinking two beers.
Furthermore, Strong Zero is carbonated, and it has been proven that carbonated beverages can make a person more drunk, faster. Carbonation helps to transfer alcohol to the bloodstream faster through the stomach lining, because the fizziness creates pressure, making the stomach empty quicker. With ten fruity flavors, ranging from peach to flat lemon to green grape, Strong Zero is a smooth and easy drink that packs a “strong” punch.
Cult Following, Warnings, and Where To Find
For natives of Japan, Strong Zero is a known precursor to a great night out on the town. They can be found at any convenience store or supermarket, and at around 130¥ (less than $2.00 USD), Strong Zero is an incredibly cost-effective option for those looking for a big-time buzz. Malt beverages in Japan are highly taxed, so for penny-pinching tourists, Strong Zero may win out over beer, malt liquor, or flavored malt beverages, at least at a grab-and-go store.
Japan also has no open container laws, so drinking in the street, while generally frowned upon, is legal. All of this explains why party-going natives and tourists have banded together in their love of Strong Zero, and other drinks like it. The country has been capitalizing on the growing popularity of this drink for years now, piquing the interest of potential visitors.
Japanese tourism sites, like Flip Guide and Live Japan, have leaned into the fun and mystique around this “blackout” drink. Rap songs and animated manga stories have been written about it, people have posted about the effects of the drink on social media and Reddit, and Suntory, the company that produces Strong Zero, was featured in the 2003 movie Lost In Translation.
Even still, there are some who see the dangers of drinking Strong Zero in excess, and have no problem sharing the counterpoint to all of the funny, positive posts about the drink.
On New Years’ Eve of 2019, Dr. Toshihiko Matsumoto took to Facebook to alert people to the dangers of drinking Strong Zero in excess, likening the drink to illegal drugs and calling for a raise on the tax of alcoholic beverages in an attempt to curb sales. Other Japanese health officials have warned against high consumption of canned chūhai beverages, and blame the easy availability and “casual image” of these drinks for the rate at which some choose to imbibe.
Takashi Nagoune, a marketing officer at Tokyo-based Kirin Co. (a Suntory and Strong Zero competitor), points to the financial collapse of 2008 as the reason behind the growing popularity of these types of drinks. At that time, many Japanese citizens were concerned with saving money, and canned chūhai beverages brought the most bang for a drinker’s buck.
Despite these warnings, folks from all over the world still want in on this drinking experience. Reddit threads and articles across numerous platforms devote themselves to the topic. Currently, it looks as though this drink is mainly available in Japan, and is being imported to the UK through outfits like Japan Centre, but it does cost a pretty penny. There is no word at this time regarding shipment of Strong Zero to the United States.