Metropolis magazine

An introduction to Japan’s highball craze.

It’s 2008 and Japan’s second largest beverage company has a problem. Whisky, the pride of its portfolio, the drink on which it built its empire, is in a slump. The market has been shrinking for 26 years. Japan is turning its back on the tipple that once epitomized worldly sophistication.

Said company, Suntory, learns that Japan’s young drinkers see the distillate as too strong and a poor companion for food. Whisky is what old men drink before bedtime. To turn things around, the beverage giant launches a promotion that is now seen as a blueprint for other dwindling drinks sectors.

“We used highballs as the theme of the campaign because they’re low in alcohol, easy to drink and they go well with food,” says Tsugihiro Tanaka, head of Suntory’s whisky section.

The highball—a whisky and soda, sometimes with lemon—was Japan’s most popular cocktail in the postwar years. Luckily for Suntory, it’s usually made with their top-selling Suntory Whisky brand, more popularly known by the nickname “Kakubin.”

The company has been pushing highballs since the ’50s, but in September last year the campaign went into overdrive. First, Suntory persuaded key izakaya to add highballs to their menus. By the end of the year, 5,000 pubs had signed up. This year the campaign expanded to 50,000 establishments, and is predicted to reach twice that many by the end of 2010.

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Photo: Will Robb

Metropolis magazine