Suntory sees sales soar by creating highballs, mixing the spirit with a slug of soda in a pint glass
The Japanese have long been committed whisky drinkers, and until recently that meant holing up in a small, dark den designed for serious drinking. But the country’s leading distiller has been revolutionising drinking culture with the aid of a pint glass and a more than generous slug of soda.
The whisky highballs introduced by Suntory, the privately owned Japanese drinks conglomerate that has the lion’s share of the country’s whisky market, seem to have worked. Sales have been up more than 10% a year over the past three years.
The group’s Yamazaki distillery on the outskirts of Japan’s imperial city, Kyoto, is the home of Japanese whisky and this year is celebrating its 90th anniversary. It is often forgotten outside Japan that as well as importing large quantities of scotch, the Japanese make their own malts. Indeed, more than 80% of the domestic market is accounted for by whisky produced in Japan. As in the UK, whisky drinkers were by tradition male and relatively old, but targeting younger drinkers with the highball has changed all that.
“Domestic consumption was declining up until three years ago,” said Hiroyoshi Miyamoto, the former general manager at Yamazaki and now Suntory’s global brand ambassador, “but it all turned around in 2009 when we introduced the highball. That changed the attitude of Japanese consumers.” Miyamoto said younger drinkers found old-style whisky bars intimidating, so Suntory was developing a new generation of highball bars and getting its cheaper whiskies into other bars where they could be sold as an alternative to beer.
The capital, Tokyo, has plenty of the old and the new. The ultimate secret city, it has an estimated 300,000 bars, many hidden in basements or office blocks. Campbell Toun Loch, a subterranean bar in the Ginza district which despite the eccentric spelling does indeed prove to be full of whisky, seats just eight. It is no bigger than a large cupboard, but contains hundreds of bottles of whisky, three deep on the counter. When you order, the barman plonks the bottle down in front of you as if he expects it to be polished off. This is a bar for the connoisseur.
In some of the more formal bars, there are rocking chairs and oak panelling. The atmosphere resembles that of a gentlemen’s club. Bartenders in ties and waistcoats theatrically chip away to make the perfect iceball, over which the spirit is lovingly poured. This is whisky drinking as performance art.
At the other end of the scale is Marugin, a noisy, bustling bar in the heart of Ginza district, full of salarymen who have just finished work and are desperate to let off steam. Whereas Campbell Toun Loch caters for the solitary, late-night drinker, Marugin attracts lively early-evening groups, eating, smoking and knocking back highballs. Marugin even has whisky on draught, a trend Suntory is keen to encourage despite the high cost of maintaining the pumps.
“We are trying to create a buzz around whisky,” said brand manager Keita Minari. “A popular TV programme in Japan picked up on Marugin and the new trend for drinking highballs, and it said people there were drinking whisky more than beer. When you are having a meal, whisky doesn’t stay in your stomach, unlike beer where you get full very easily.”
There are, though, no immediate plans to transplant the whisky-drinking revolution to Europe, where Suntory’s brands – principally the Yamazaki and Hakushu malts – are premium products. “We have to do these things step by step,” said Minari. “Scots are coming to Japan, seeing the phenomenon of the highball and saying we should do the same thing in the UK, but it’s too early. Our share of the UK market is very small compared with scotch whisky. At the moment we still have to let people know that Japan is making whisky.”
Japanese whisky exports to the UK and Europe used to be negligible, but when Yamazaki 12 Years Old won a gold award at the International Spirits Challenge in 2003, Suntory decided to try to take on scotch on its home ground, and now has a foothold in the market.
Shunichi Ninomiya, senior general manager in Suntory’s international liquor division, said the company had to be careful not to undermine its premium image in the UK and Europe by introducing cheaper brands such as its Kakubin blended whisky, the biggest-selling whisky in Japan. If it did go down the highball route in western markets, he said, it would probably be via its premium malts. Draught whisky and whisky in cans – available in vending machines in Japan to consumers with an ID smartcard to prove their age – are still a long way off in the west.
Asked about the dangers in targeting younger drinkers and setting up whisky as a rival to beer, Minari insisted the Japanese were less prone to binge drinking than the British. Yet just opposite Marugin I saw a young salaryman clearly the worse for drink lying comatose in the street. A few minutes later, ambulance personnel were attending to him. I have no idea what he was drinking, but it does seem that not every young Japanese drinker knows when to stop.
“Regulation is loose in Japan,” admitted a spokesman at Suntory’s ad agency, “but we are trying to champion responsible drinking. We are conscious of our position in society, and communication-wise we make sure it’s delivered in a correct manner.”
The chief operating officer of the international liquor division, Satoru “Tiger” Abe – senior executives in Japan tend to be named after golfers – insisted that the increasing consumption of highballs made anti-social drinking less likely, because the whisky was heavily diluted and usually accompanied by food. He hopes the salaryman on the pavement in Ginza will be the exception, and this is one revolution that can be carried out without victims.