Hip highballs curb Japan's whisky shipments

Japan's unquenchable thirst for hip highballs has forced domestic whisky giant Suntory Holdings Ltd. to limit shipments of its most popular brand of the amber liquid.

Sales of the company's Kakubin whiskey have seen an increase of 70 percent in the first half of the year from the same period last year, largely due to demand for highballs. And because the flagship brand takes up to a decade to mature in barrels, Suntory has decided to put the brakes on further shipments.

"It has been difficult to gauge the timing because it's not like we can produce a quality product like Kakubin in one day," Aoi Kojima, a spokeswoman for Suntory, told Relaxnews.

She was quick, however, to play down suggestions that the company will run dry of Kakubin. "We have been promoting highballs since last year and we have been surprised at their popularity," she said. "Our main target was 30-something men, but we have also found that highballs are popular with younger people and women. It has just become a fashionable drink again."

The campaign for Suntory's Kaku highball has led to an estimated 40,000 establishments having the cheap-and-cheerful cocktail - a mixture of whiskey and soda over ice - on their drinks lists. A year ago, according to Suntory, only 15,000 bars served highballs.

The other drink that is in demand as the scorching Japanese summer starts to take hold are what are known locally as "third-category beer," which contain no malt and are therefore exempt from government taxes, making them far cheaper to buy.

All of Japan's four major brewers - Kirin Brewery Co., Asahi Breweries Ltd., Sapporo Breweries Ltd. and Suntory - now produce third-category beers and saw shipments surge more than 6 percent in May to 11.86 million cases, accounting for more than 33 percent of total beer shipments and underlining the popularity of cheaper products.

Shipments of all beer products fell 8.4 percent in May to 35.63 million cases, a record low for the month that has been blamed on the ongoing economic downturn and cooler temperatures across the country this spring.

Domestic shipments of beer have declined every year for the last decade in Japan, despite efforts to reverse the slump with new products and promotional campaigns.