Suntory's spirited strategy

Suntory's spirited strategy

They're smoky. Stuffy. Chaotic. Elbow room is a luxury, social niceties an afterthought and the food deliberately oversalted. But when spirits are high - in more ways than one - such things don't matter to a Japanese salary man whose sole intention is to pack his daytime persona as straight-laced, subservient model employee back into his manbag so that his real self can come out to play.

Behold the izakaya - a pub with food to you but a way of life to the Japanese, a culture deeply ingrained since the Edo period that's in no danger of dying out any time soon. Certainly not at Tachinomi Marugin - or simply Marugin - a grungy hard-core izakaya that sits on the fringe of Tokyo's shiny Ginza district. Locals and clued-in tourists pack shoulder-to-shoulder in this tight space shrouded in silvery grey smoke as flexible servers coolly slither around, delivering freshly grilled yakitori and boiled edamame. Groups of dark-suited men (and some women) sit with their ties askew, laughing uproariously as they nibble and knock back gulps of Kaku highball served in giant beer mugs - the alcoholic refresher of choice which has become synonymous with Japan's izakaya culture.

The thirst-quenching, lightly boozy combination of one shot of Suntory whisky and four shots of soda water - the ratio is imperative - is a prime example of how clever marketing and carefully calculated strategy can reverse the image of a once boring liqueur and influence social trends at the same time.

Flasback to 2008 or thereabouts, when Suntory - Japan's oldest whisky maker - was suffering from flagging sales of a prized spirit it had been distilling since the 1920s. For 25 years, it was the loser in a popularity contest that equated whisky with an old man's drink.

The post-war generation grew up watching their fathers nursing their nightly tipple, and didn't want to be seen emulating the older guys.

But by the new millennium, children of this "lost" whisky generation had come of age, had never seen their parents drink whisky and were a lot more open-minded about it. That was when Suntory made the move to revive the highball - a highly popular drink in Japan in the 1950s - and now re-interpreted as a casual thirst-quencher which could be enjoyed with food. That proved to be the key, as the Japanese had pigeon-holed whisky as being too strong to have at mealtime. But when combined with Suntory's own soda water pumped fresh from special dispensers, perked up with a twist of lemon and a crushed mint leaf, it became an easy drinking-dining companion that could even displace beer - unless it was Suntory premium malt, natch.

The success was unprecedented. From the initial 5,000 izakayas they introduced the highball to, the number is now closer to 100,000 if not more, across Japan. The Kaku highball is now synonymous with the izakaya, with 80 per cent of highball consumption taking place in these eateries, whether they're gritty holes in the wall or spruced up versions on Ginza's high-end shopping strip, like the Suntory-owned Hibiki.

Double-digit growth

Last year, three million cases of Kakubin whisky were sold in Japan, a five to six per cent increase over the year before. This year, the company expects to see double-digit growth. No wonder, considering there are even highball bars devoted to the drink, and entire menus dedicated to the many different permutations of highballs and whisky that you can think of.

In Hibiki, for example, you can enjoy thick miso fish soup, grilled chicken chunks and lotus root tempura with your pick of highballs made with 12, 17 or 21-year-old Hibiki whisky, the titular Kakubin, Yamazaki or Hakushu.

For a first-hand look at how these master blends came to being, you'll need to step into a whole new world, far from the bright lights and smoky surroundings of izakaya central.

Instead, tucked into the forest at the foot of Mount Kaikoma between Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures, lies Suntory's Hakushu distillery which, together with its Yamazaki plant, churns out their titular single malts as well as the Hibiki line.

A good 2 1/2-hour drive from Tokyo takes you to the picturesque 40-year-old distillery - the younger sibling of Yamazaki, which was where founder and master blender Shinjiro Torii gave his countrymen their very first taste of homemade "moonshine".

Torii-san was a visionary, says Mike Miyamoto, Suntory's general manager, quality communication, spirits division. A master whisky blender himself, he says, "Japan was very primitive at the time - in the 1920s (Torii first started business in 1899 as a wine importer). We didn't even have cars then but he wanted to develop his own whisky. It was a groundbreaking idea."

He had to his advantage the amazing, pristine water from the surrounding rivers that are the hallmark of Suntory's whiskies (and subsequently beer). "We used to make our own malt until the 1970s, when it became too expensive. It cost five times as much as importing malted barley from Scotland. The quality's not the same, but in terms of the product it makes only a small difference."

Beyond ingredients

Whisky's not like wine, adds Mr Miyamoto, where the quality of the raw material can make or break the final product. "Factors like water supply, fermentation and distillation are more important than the ingredients." And, in Suntory's case, the clean and green environment that their distilleries are located in (and their great distance from Fukushima, in case you're wondering).

Finally, of course, there is the human input - the nose and palate of the master blender who has the final say after all the computer's precise calibration of the distillery's gigantic pot stills is done, and the ageing in barrels with quirky names such as hogshead, puncheon and sherry butt. He is the one who decides when the herbal notes of the Hakushu 12-year-old, the vanilla-scented smokiness of the Distiller's Reserve or the silky, floral notes of the 18-year-old meet Suntory whisky's description of "subtle, refined, yet complex".

Although Suntory has been making whisky for 90 years, it's gained international recognition only in the last 10, with multiple awards. Asians are particularly enamoured because of the way Japanese whisky is designed to appeal to the delicate palate of Japanese people, explains Mr Miyamoto.

Its popularity is growing in tandem with the interest in Japanese food too, he adds. "It's the acceptance of Japanese culture by foreign cultures."

Recalling a whisky dinner he hosted in Singapore last year, Mr Miyamoto says, "Chinese, spicy and most Japanese food cannot go with whisky in general but if Suntory whisky can go with Japanese food, it can go with any kind of cuisine." As a broad guideline, he would recommend Yamazaki whisky with robust, strong flavoured food, while seafood or lightly cooked meat and vegetables would go best with Hakushu. But spicy food? That's easy - whisky and soda, that is, the highball.

But won't the appeal of the highball dilute the core purpose behind Suntory whisky?

Not quite. "It's hard to get a horse to drink the water, but once it does, it understands," says Mr Miyamoto. "It's the same with the kids - if you can't get them to drink whisky, you first get them to switch from beer to the highball. And once they understand, then the next step is to get them to appreciate whisky."

If it works out, Suntory may have lost a generation of whisky drinkers, but they are fast making up with a new generation of connoisseurs.

The writer was a guest of Beam Global and Suntory Japan.

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