Highball drives thirst for whiskey

OSAKA (Kyodo) Domestic whiskey is in vogue once more as young people acquire a taste for the highball, a cocktail made by mixing whiskey and soda.

The surge in highball interest is being accompanied by a jump in sales of carbonated water, major supermarkets say.

At the Yotsuhashi highball bar Dandan in Osaka’s Nishi Ward, Hiromi Unagi, 38, was enjoying some highballs with her friend on her way home from work. “A highball is lighter than whiskey and water, and slips down as easily as beer,” she said.

Masato Fujita, the bar’s manager, said, “Our customers are men and women of all ages. What’s good about a highball is that it goes well with different dishes.”

The highball was all the rage in Japan in the 1950s, fueled by the success of Torys whiskey distilled by Suntory Ltd., now Suntory Holdings Ltd. But the cocktail later made way for whiskey on the rocks, and whiskey and water. Nowadays, the highball boom is driven by the popularity of the company’s Kakubin whiskey.

Suntory Liquors Ltd. of Tokyo is pitching the “Kaku highball” with TV commercials featuring actress Koyuki. The TV spots target not only drinkers in their 40s, the main market for whiskey, but also those in their 20s and 30s.

At the same time, the company is promoting its product to highball bars and Japanese-style pubs. Showing how rapidly the highball is catching on again, there were an estimated 40,000 establishments serving the cocktail at the end of July, versus just 15,000 at the end of last year.

The company is also providing a set of Kakubin and carbonated water to convenience stores, and sales of Kakubin bottles in the first half of this year surged 15 percent compared with the year before.

Sales of Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.’s main product, Black Nikka Clear Blend, are also favorable and quickly catching up with Kakubin, currently the king of domestic whiskeys.

Sales of Nikka Whisky’s canned highball, which was reintroduced last year, have accelerated as more people drink at home. Sales from January to July are 25 percent higher than the same period last year.

Major supermarket chain Aeon Co., which sells its proprietary Topvalu brand of carbonated water, saw sales in August jump 20 percent over the same month in 2008.

Izumiya Co.’s proprietary carbonated water, which debuted at the end of last year, is also selling well, with July sales double last year’s. “There has been a synergy effect of the (highball) boom and low prices,” said an Izumiya official.