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We know whiskey (whiskeys, even) have their glory and heritage well-cemented within the European market, amongst the Scots to be exact. So how did Japanese whiskey make its way into European markets, even clinching the title of the world’s best whiskey in 2015?
Famed Japanese actress Koyuki demonstrating how to prepare a highball in a Suntory commercial.
In the bar and cocktail industry, American and European spirits and serving styles are positioned front and center. Synonymous with tradition and quality, this market attracts a fixed clientele with specific tastes.
The Japanese shook things up by not entering Western markets. Instead, they sought to expand whiskey appreciation and drinking within their own local markets.
Faced with a declining whiskey-drinking clientele, Japanese whiskey breweries had to recapture the younger crowd, who were increasingly shunning the drink.
As such, in 2008, a series of star-studded TV commercials on the Japanese highball, as popularized by Suntory brewery, was launched to great fanfare.
These ads generated crazy levels of word-of-mouth and increased sales of the highball, to the extent that the number of bars that served it rose from 15,000 to 40,000 by mid-2009.
The famous Suntory Whisky Highball.
The strong local demand for Japanese whiskey had a potent spillover effect in the international market. Bars and bartenders around the world started to sell the concoction.
Recognizing the wild success of the Japanese highball, Suntory opened numerous highball bars dedicated to serving quality highballs. This radical move attracted patronage for both its quality and novelty.
A beautifully stocked Suntory bar bathed in low, warm lighting.
Having seduced the new wave of whiskey drinkers, the creation of a place specifically catered to new drinking demands greatly benefitted Suntory and other Japanese whiskey distilleries.
In addition, these highball bars offered customers a range of whiskeys from different (and competing) distilleries. Regardless of present rivalries, Japanese breweries were determined to champion Japanese whiskey.
“Before 2003, few people knew we were making whisky in Japan, but recently we have found lovers from around the world. Our first award was an ISC (International Spirits Challenge) gold medal for Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt in 2003 and then again in 2010. Then some people started tasting and enjoying our whisky. We now we have 130,000 visitors per year at our [Yamazaki] distillery and more than ten percent of them come from abroad.” - Makoto Sumita, General Manager of Quality Communication at Suntory, 2015
There's even a tour specially designed to highlight the history of Japanese whiskeys and spirits.
With roots in the early 20th century, Japanese whiskey distilleries were never newcomers nor incompetent pretenders. But it took the world years to notice them, and even then, global admiration was achieved through sheer will and effort.
Winning years of alcohol and whiskey competitions over the years, Japanese whiskey distilleries took their time to wow the world with their products.
Being awarded the top whiskey in the world in the Jim Murray Whisky Bible in 2015 was also the deal-clincher, with quality alone creating talk and attention for Japanese whiskey.
Yet, the Japanese whiskey wave was neither blind nor bullish. The introduction of Japanese whiskeys into the European market was a careful and meticulous process, selecting only the best and premium brands to be marketed to construct deluxe brand consciousness.
It's one thing to reignite demand and interest for Japanese whiskey within Japan itself. It's another when Japanese whiskey takes over a Western market so accustomed to their own whiskey brands. In this respect, Japanese whiskey distilleries have truly achieved the impossible.