Kirin sees Japan whisky ‘renaissance’ driving 50% export of premium brand

By Rocky Swift and Mayu Sakoda

TOKYO (Reuters) – A Japanese whisky “renaissance” will help Kirin Holdings more than double exports of its premium brand by 2025, the company’s master blender said.

Japan had fewer than 10 distilleries for most of its whisky history, which hit the century mark last year. But that number shot past 100 in the past few years as new entrants sought to take advantage of huge global demand and eye-watering prices.

“I really believe that we are in the midst of a Japanese whisky renaissance,” said Jota Tanaka, who leads Kirin’s whisky business. “There are some fantastic companies with great ambition and technical skill being born.”

For much of its history, Japanese whisky was seen as an imitation of scotch and produced mostly for domestic consumption. But from about 2008, bottles from Suntory Holdings and the Nikka brand owned by Asahi Group Holdings started to rack up international awards, sparking a boom in global demand that drank dry the supply of aged stock.

Kirin’s Fuji Gotemba Distillery, which sits at the foot of Japan’s sacred mountain, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, but Kirin remains a distant third in Japan’s whisky market behind Suntory and Asahi. All three are diversified into beer, soft drinks, and food.

About 10% to 20% of Kirin’s premium Fuji brand of whisky is sold overseas now, though the company aims to raise the ratio to half, Tanaka said. The overseas focus is partly driven by necessity, given Japan’s shrinking population and a decline in alcohol consumption among younger people.

The Kirin brand is not as widely known in whisky circles, even in its home market. But with just 4% of global whisky supply deriving from Japan, Tanaka believes there is room to grow without cutthroat competition.

“As long we can get customers to try a drink of our products and say, ‘Oh, Kirin makes some good stuff,’ then growth will come naturally,” he said.

(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Stephen Coates)