When The Coca-Cola Co branched into alcohol in 2018, the move made headline news. The chuhai drink, under the brand name Lemon-dou, was designed to tap into the growing demand in the country for spirit-and-soda RTDs. Recently, the group announced that Lemon-dou’s sales are projected to reach 67.2m litres by the end of this year, demonstrating the brand has successfully grown to become one of Japan’s key flavoured alcohol beverages.

In Japan, chuhai, a spirits-based pre-mix with shochu or vodka and carbonated water, typically has a variety of flavours. Lemon is one of the most common, symbolised by chuhai being also known in the market as ‘lemon sour’. According to Coca-Cola, Lemon-dou’s regular SKU – the brand has four variants – has been the largest in terms of value sales share in the lemon sour category between January and September this year.

Before the arrival of Lemon-dou, Japan witnessed a rise in prominence of the lemon sour trend, with Suntory‘s Kodawari Sakaba no Lemon Sour (Kodawari Sakaba means ‘Connoisseur’s Bar’) a notable example. Suntory’s brand has performed significantly well, with sales reaching 58.7 m litres in 2019 following its launch in March of that year.

Although Lemon-dou was launched in Japan in 2018, Coca-Cola engaged in market testing in the Kyushu region for around a year before moving on to a national launch in October last year. The brand has subsequently become both a big name in its own right in the lemon sour category and a serious rival to Suntory.

Why is lemon sour, a well-established flavour, so popular in Japan? Lemon-dou and Kodawari Sakaba brands are common in their quality focus: Both offer quality ingredients as well as the “perfect” blend of ingredients that can be served in a bar.

In Japan, flavoured alcohol beverages (FABs) are popular among younger consumers, such as Millennials, yet Lemon-dou and Kodawari Sakaba also target consumers in their 30s and above. Older Millennials and Generation X consumers are their specific main target.

Interestingly, both brands present themselves as ‘traditional’ – perhaps even old-fashioned – in brand image. This positioning, coupled with a focus on a good lemon flavour, seems to resonate not only with consumers entering legal drinking age but also with older cohorts, such as Baby Boomers.

This wide appeal is strategically important given that Japan continues to age, population-wise.

Overall, lemon sour looks set to be a key trend to watch in 2021. Japan is the world’s second-largest FAB market, and the market is relatively mature. However, the country continues to deliver new and unique innovations.

Given that RTD and pre-mixed cocktails are a hot category in Western markets, observing Japanese trends and innovations could help predict the future elsewhere.

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