Can Taiwanese Liquors Follow Japan's Model To Global Success?

Can Taiwanese Liquors Follow Japan's Model To Global Success?
Photo Credit: Kavalan Whisky

What you need to know

The success of Japanese liquors outside the country provides a useful model for Taiwanese distillers like Kavalan.

The success or failure of any drink often can be explained by how it is marketed — both to domestic and international audiences. Japan's Suntory provides an instructive case study on the delicate task of marketing a drink that appeals to all.

In March 2020, the Japanese beverage giant Suntory introduced the country to “Sui,” the firm’s first attempt at creating a mass-market gin. Alongside the product itself, Suntory launched an advertising campaign that would place gin in the repertoire of alcohol imbibed in thousands of izakayas across Japan. The official website for Sui extols the compatibility of gin with Japanese foods and describes how gin can be mixed for casual enjoyment.

Suntory’s attempt to popularize gin in a market where it does not feature commonly outside western bars is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory, distilled the firm’s first bottle of Yamazaki whisky in 1923 when Japan was emerging out of cultural isolation and had no ready market for the drink. To get Japanese drinkers to accept the new drink, Suntory popularized the highball through their own chain of bars in the 1950s, while pitching more high-end offerings as status symbols to increasingly wealthy salarymen in the 1970s and 80s. In more recent years, Yamazaki has won a slew of international awards, often beating offerings from the drink’s traditional home of Scotland, and has even been dubbed the best whisky in the world by mainstream western media.

Taiwan has been following in Japan’s footsteps in making a name for itself distilling liquors. Produced only since 2005, Kavalan whiskies have nonetheless established a global presence by winning multiple awards over western competitors. In Japan, they’ve bested local favorites.

Yet, even as Japanese and Taiwanese distillers bag global awards, some overseas drinkers overseas question their authenticity. The alleged lack of standardization and culture of rigor in Japanese distilleries has fueled skepticism on whether Japanese whiskies can be considered whiskies at all. As long as whiskies and other liquors are seen as “western” by consumers all over the world, Japanese and Taiwanese distillers’ lack of perceived home-field advantage will be a sticking point for purists.

To parry the questions about authenticity, Japanese distillers have emphasized the superior craftsmanship that ensures the high quality of its liquors. In its advertisements, Suntory notes the care and dedication of its production staff, inherited from the country’s long tradition of making sake, shochu, and other native libations. By applying the craftsmanship to Yamazaki, Sui, as well as other liquor products, the firm suggests that the high quality of its liquors is universal. Just as it can distill the best sake, whisky, and gin, it can also apply the same care and dedication to vodka, tequila, and any other spirit popular around the world.

The quality of Japanese liquors has been reinforced by the growth of the domestic and international markets for them. Since the first bottle of Yamazaki whisky was distilled, Japan has climbed to the fourth-largest market for the drink by 2014, due to the popularity of highball and other whisky-mixed drinks in izakayas and other watering holes. On the flip side, the increasing global interest in Japanese cuisine and dining culture like izakayas has concurrently driven global consumption of sake, which has helped spread interest in other Japan-made alcohols of western provenance.

The success of Japanese liquors outside the country provides a useful model for Taiwanese distillers like Kavalan as they seek to continue expanding their global presence. It’s fruitless for Japanese and Taiwanese distillers to compete on authenticity. Instead, as Suntory has shown, a relentless focus on quality, combined with marketing the product as an integral part of popularizing a national cuisine abroad, can do much more to help Taiwanese liquors achieve global recognition. As Taiwanese cuisine becomes more well-known around the world, there is an opportunity for its highest-quality liquors.

This article was updated on September 29, 2020 at 3:38 pm.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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