LONDON – Tucked beneath a yakitori restaurant, a new whisky bar called Mizuwari has opened its doors. In this dimly lit basement the shelves are stacked with more than 40 varieties of Japanese whisky and the walls are adorned with old posters for Suntory High Balls and Torys.
It is a scene that wouldn’t be uncommon to Japanese of a certain age. However, this bar is not in Japan. It is in London.
In recent years Japanese whisky has surged somewhat in popularity not only in Britain but also in Europe.
Japanese products have won at least one honor at the World Whisky Awards every year since its establishment in 2007 and sales outside Japan are trending upward.
Mizuwari (the Japanese term for a drink that mixes whisky with water) opened its doors last month in concert with Bincho Yakitori, a London-based yakitori chain, with some advice from whisky giant Suntory.
Mizuwari stocks only Japanese whisky, while serving a variety of yakitori from the restaurant upstairs.
Bar manager Niya Martin has seen steady business and a variety of customers since the bar opened.
“There’s a healthy mix. There are people who just want to be in nice surroundings in a nice bar. There’s people who want to be somewhere new and cool and we get some of the whisky buffs coming in who want to try some of the more exotic bottles,” Martin said.
“Forty to 50 percent probably haven’t tried Japanese whisky before or perhaps have only tried one, so we make them make reference points between what they usually drink.”
One customer, James, a Scottish whisky fan who lives in London, has seen Japanese whisky in bars and restaurants around the city for some time and feels it has become more popular in recent years.
“There were the awards that Japanese whisky won, but I think films such as ‘Lost In Translation’ have also helped Japanese whisky increase its appeal,” he explained.
“The peatiness and floral quality of Japanese whisky makes it quite similar to Scotch and appealing to those used to drinking Scotch varieties,” said Sarah, another customer.
Suntory’s whisky sales in Britain have increased more than threefold since 2006, rising from 700 cases to 2,300 cases in 2012. The increase in Europe has been even more dramatic, with sales rising from 1,800 cases to 15,000 cases over the same period.
According to trade statistics from the Finance Ministry, Japan’s whisky exports in 2012 were more than double the figure for 2007, and an increasing number of potential buyers from Europe and the United States are taking the time to visit Japanese distilleries.
Suntory is offering headphone guides in English, French and Chinese at its distilleries in Osaka and Yamanashi.
Since around 2000, Japanese whisky makers such as Suntory and Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., a unit of Asahi Breweries Ltd., have won increasing numbers of titles at overseas whisky contests.
Keita Minari, brand manager for Suntory’s British subsidiary, thinks there are reasons other than awards that have led to the increased appeal of Japanese whisky.
“Compared to Scotch, Japanese whisky has a smooth quality. It’s easy to drink,” he said.
“We also feel like we are riding on the coattails of the increasing popularity of Japanese food.”
It is not just the whisky itself that’s being imported either. The custom of “bottle keep,” where a customer can buy a bottle at the bar and come back another time to finish it, has also been introduced in the hope it will help to further spread the popularity of Japanese whisky.
Suntory’s strategy in Britain going forward will be to market its whisky in the luxury end of the market while increasing visibility through careful placement in high-end supermarkets.
“The idea is that instead of having one bottle in 1,000 restaurants, we want to have 100 bottles in 10 influential restaurants, bars or supermarkets,” said Minari.
“Britain is the home of whisky so if our whisky is rated here it could have a big impact in the future.”