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Move Over Scotland Suntory Is Here

January 10, 2020

Prior to the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1972 and following 27 years of U.S. occupation, one could fly to Okinawa, purchase the permitted three bottles of duty-free Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch, sell two of the bottles back in Japan at retail prices, pay for the round-trip airfare and have a free bottle. Therefore, Johnny Walker Black was the currency to support mainland visitors to Okinawa. Most “sophisticated” tipplers in those days would not have considered drinking Suntory Japanese whiskey but it has now arrived. In fact, the price of Black Label has slid to $15 a bottle while a bottle of the Suntory leading label, Hibiki, is priced at $89 a bottle. Now you should know that the author preferred Japanese sake in those days and still today, though there has been an explosion in the quality market as well. Nonetheless, Hibiki, the most fashionable whiskey of the Japanese realm, is shown below.

Moreover, Hibiki has achieved such a cachet that westerners give it as gifts to other westerners, including two bottles recently received by the author, whether the recipients have a penchant for Japan or not. Recently, the Nikkei Asia Review had two articles entitled Suntory Pours it on in India, The World’s Top Whiskey Market and Alcohol Demand Surges in India as Inhibitions Fall Away illustrating the evolving strategy of Suntory. Obviously, Suntory is focused on the third most populous and wealthiest country in the world, the United States. However, it does not represent the growth potential of the second most populist, India, which has an existing and rapidly growing population of 1.33 billion. However, the historically low per capital income levels and religious issues have not provided an India marketing focus to the outside world spirit providers. However, all of that is changing as evidenced by the graph.

In fact, Suntory recently introduced a new locally blended Oaksmith brand that will only be offered in the India market. The new brand will be blended in India with imported bourbon and scotch and will be classified as an Indian-made foreign liquor. Similar products make up 90% of India’s whiskey market. Oaksmith will be Suntory’s first product sold only in India following its previous acquisition of Jim Beam-a favorite beverage of U.S. country music singer Hank Williams Jr.-"I have loved some women and I have loved Jim Beam.” Oaksmith will target middle-and upper-income drinkers with pricing up to $19 per bottle. At this point, the shops offering whisky brands may not look particularly familiar to most of you. However, India, a former British colony, accounts for half of world demand with Suntory being the 3rd largest spirits producer in the world.

An alcohol taste and status binge have transformed the traditional values of India. Generational changes and economic growth have sent alcohol sales growth soaring with consumption increasing per-person by 140% in the past 14 years. As the global consumption growth was only 16% over that period, all the factors indicate a significant opportunity for future growth in quantity and quality as the economic benefits of the growing economy disseminate through the population.

Whereas beer constitutes only 8% of the country’s alcohol consumption, the choices are expanding. In fact, the domestic beer brand Bira, shown, is gaining in popularity. Over an extraordinary number of visits over the past 27 years, a cold Indian beer was always this Texan’s beverage of choice. Although the Bira label lacks a certain level of sophistication relative to other local brands, it is likely a refreshing beverage in what can be one of the most stifling, hottest places in the world.

As one clears away the fog of New Year celebrations, it becomes clearer that many parts of the world are beginning to converge in their food and beverage choices. Various ethnic food and beverages pop up in the least expected places. Whereas there may be a spurt in populism and “go-it-alone” attitudes in many developed countries, that movement does not seem to extend to international food and beverage tastes for which we travelers can be most thankful. British food was largely inedible prior to the UK joining the European Union. As the British now seem destined to withdraw from the EU, one could be concerned that the nostalgia of that past era will impact the current dining attractiveness of London as it is today.

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