TV drama, plaudits: a cocktail of success for Japanese whisky

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AFP-JIJI

Whisky demand is rocketing in Japan, with producers scrambling to increase production as a period drama about the dram has the country hooked and after a homegrown single malt scooped the honors in a world taste test.

Sales have soared since NHK began airing a daily dose of “Massan,” the tale of a Japanese entrepreneur and his Scottish wife who are credited with establishing Japan’s first whisky distillery.

“We’re not keeping up with demand,” said Hasumi Ozawa, a spokeswoman for Suntory, one of Japan’s biggest drink-makers.

Suntory says it is limiting its shipments to cope with the whisky boom, despite having ramped up production at its distilleries two years ago.

The increased capacity has yet to filter through because of the tipple’s famously lengthy manufacturing process, in which newly distilled whisky is left to mellow in wooden barrels for years.

Whisky has traditionally been a minority interest in Japan’s huge drinks market, where it accounts for just 1.16 percent of total sales, although producers say this is growing.

The uptrend began in 2009, Ozawa said, with the revival of highballs, a mix of whisky and soda that became popular among younger drinkers, which is sold in bars as well as in cans at convenience stores.

Then in November, Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was named the world’s best by the prestigious Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015, giving the industry a fillip both at home and abroad.

That came soon after NHK began airing “Massan,” the latest in a long line of saccharine television dramas that hark back to Japan’s pre-World War II years of rapid industrialization.

In 15-minute episodes that are shown in the morning and repeated at lunchtime, it tells the story of Masaharu Kameyama — nicknamed Massan — and his struggles to produce Japan’s first whisky.

More than 1 in 5 Japanese are said to be tuning into the drama, which began last September. The filming of the last episode ended last week.

Nikka Whisky Distilling, whose founder is the model for the main character in “Massan,” says it is having to trim the rate at which it ships some of its more popular products to avoid running short.

Sales of the company’s Japan-made whisky jumped 124 percent in 2014 from the previous year, partly thanks to the TV series, said Masanao Sugi, a spokesman for Nikka’s parent Asahi Group Holdings.

“We believe that the TV drama helped increase the number of Nikka and whisky fans,” he said in an email.

The company is trying to catch up with surging demand by keeping its production lines going full-time, including on weekends, he said.

As well as helping the domestic whisky industry, “Massan” has also made a star out of previously-unknown American actress Charlotte Kate Fox.

Millions of housewives have been smitten by the plight of her character, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Ellie, as she gamely battles to adjust to life in Japan.

Fox, the first non-Japanese to be cast in a leading role for the influential NHK drama slot, is to play a lead role in the Broadway production of “Chicago” in the autumn.

“Massan” is not the first time that drama has given Japanese whisky a reputational leg-up.

Suntory, which last year acquired U.S.-based Jim Beam bourbon for nearly $16 billion, was introduced to a global audience by Bill Murray’s character in the 2003 film “Lost In Translation.”

“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time,” became a cult catchphrase among fans imitating Murray’s washed-up actor who travels to Tokyo to film commercials for the company.