Whiskey and the Highball – Japan’s Retro Cocktail Culture

Domestic whiskey is expected to see its first volume increase in 11 years, mostly due to the recent popularity of whiskey and soda, or highball, among younger generations attracted to the retro cocktail culture and because it is an affordable alternative to beer and other similarly priced tipples.

Domestic whiskey consumption has been stagnant for a long time, with shipping volume on a taxation basis either staying level or even going down since 1989–except for 1997 and 1998 when the tax on whiskey was reduced.

This year is expected to see a 6 percent to 7 percent increase from last year.

The comeback of the highball appears to be leading this surge. Suntory Holdings Ltd., which makes the Kakubin brand of whiskey, introduced a special server for highballs tailored for the Kakubin brand. Its advertisements for the cocktail feature popular actress Koyuki. The number of pubs and other eateries serving Kaku-highballs jumped fourfold to 58,000 in the past year.

Suntory also started selling canned highballs in October only at convenience stores. Kirin Brewery Co. plans to start selling its own canned highballs in February.

The popularity of alcoholic drinks can shift fast, such as with the vintage wine boom in the late 1990s, which was followed by the “craft” shochu distilled spirits boom of the early 2000s and the shochu with soda fad of recent years.

Noting the recent highball trend, Takuya Kano, representative of private research body Sakebunka (drinking culture) Institute in Tokyo, said: “For younger people, most of whom have never drunk whiskey before, the highball is something new to them. It’s not sweet and tends to go well with various foods.”

The reasonable price also appears to be a selling point as people cut back amid the recession. The average highball is about 400 yen while a mug of beer is generally 500 yen to 600 yen at most eateries.

There also is a movement to develop easier-to-drink whiskey. The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. in March changed its Super Nikka brand to make it less peaty. The company’s spokesman said it is easier for whiskey beginners to accept and has been well received.

“Highball’s popularity spans generations, and it looks like [whiskey’s comeback] has finally arrived,” said Shizuka Ijuin, a novelist and well-known whiskey lover. “An increase of as much as 6 to 7 percent can’t be from just a temporary boost in popularity.”

Suntory also has it’s own spin on the highball.


photos by yto and scaredykat

One Reply to “Whiskey and the Highball – Japan’s Retro Cocktail Culture”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.