Should Japans whisky distillers go back to basics in their export markets?

Should Japan's whisky distillers go back to basics in their export markets?

The Japanese are coming! Granted, Japanese whisky has been available in export markets for quite some time, but, according to Richard Woodard, the country's distillers would do well to take a fresh look at their marketing messages, to try to get consumers aware of their existence.

Fans of Monty Python may remember a sketch in which the charms of Australian table wine were gently derided. The funniness of the ridicule heaped on the likes of Sydney Syrup and Château Chunder, of course, relies on the unlikelihood of anyone taking the fruit of Australia’s vineyards seriously back in 1972 – with or without the recommendations of the “Australian Wino Society”. 

Given the transformation wrought over the past 40 years, and despite the travails currently besieging Australia’s wine industry, the humour now looks desperately dated. But it’s simple enough to update the joke – simply replace Australian wine with, oh I don’t know, something like Japanese whisky? 

To anyone with even a passing knowledge of the world of whisky, that might look unlikely, or even insulting. But honestly – ask the man or woman in the street (assuming that street isn’t in Tokyo or Osaka) and I reckon about 95% of them won’t have a clue that the land of the rising sun even makes the stuff. 

Partly, this is because the Japanese have always been rather hesitant about really pushing their wares overseas. A lot of this is to do with the fact that traditionally they’ve been able to sell enough of it in their home market, making exports little more than a niche for what remains a small whisky industry, despite the presence of some big-time players like Suntory

I think there’s also a bit of diffidence at work here. For me, a lot of the charm about the history of Japanese whisky is that they set out, really quite shamelessly, to ape Scotch – essentially aiming to make their own facsimile of the product to save the hassle and cost of importing casks from Speyside and Islay. 

What they ended up with, perhaps more by chance than by design, was something with its own character and provenance – a product with obvious similarities to Scotch, but with a defiantly oriental provenance that makes it entirely distinctive. 

But, it’s taken time for the Japanese to really believe in the quality of their product, witnessed by the undisguised euphoria shown when one of their blends or single malts scoops a gold medal in an international tasting competition. It’s as if they can’t really believe that they’re that good. 

But now, it seems, Suntory at least is getting serious about promoting products like Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki beyond the bars of Tokyo, launching a campaign pushing “The Art of Japanese Whisky” in the UK, including a two-year sponsorship of the Saatchi Gallery. 

Great – about time, in fact. But I can’t help feeling that, in their rush to be noticed in one of the drinks world’s most crowded markets, they’ve decided to apply a rather scattergun approach to the promotional strategy. Lifestyle associations? Check. An array of cocktails and mixed drinks? Check. Food matches? Check.

These are all potential routes to take in marketing your spirit, but using them all simultaneously smacks of throwing absolutely everything at the wall in the hope that something sticks. Or, to quote one of those attending the campaign launch and tasting in London earlier this month, “kitchen sink marketing”. 

Let’s be clear: most people in the UK don’t have a clue about Japanese whisky. Surely any campaign at this immature stage of the category’s development has to focus on (a) telling them it exists; (b) reinforcing its authenticity with a little gentle history and education; and (c) getting them to drink the stuff. In a glass. On its own. 

It’s a great product with a fascinating history and the unbuyable 'wow' factor of being entirely new to most of its targeted consumer base. No need to complicate the picture with highballs and mizuwaris (that’s whisky with water, in case you didn’t know – and why would you?). 

But, just in case the established whisky marketeers north of Hadrian’s Wall are starting to feel ever so slightly smug at this point, there is one lesson from the Japanese whisky industry that they might like to examine.

Until a few years ago, Japanese whisky in its home market was in slow, steady, long-term decline, dismissed by the younger generation as the drink of their parents (or even grandparents). Cool? Not so much. Sound familiar to anyone versed in the doldrums of the UK blended Scotch market?

Then came the highball. Suddenly, the idea of consuming your Nikka or Hakushu as a tall, refreshing drink took off like a bullet train, creating a surge in the market that has even led to shortages of products like Suntory’s Yamazaki.

So, while I may have my reservations about the way Japanese whisky is being marketed amid this planned new export surge, the category may yet have valuable lessons to teach the moribund blended Scotch market of certain mature Western destinations.

Anyone for whisky and soda? No joke…