Japanese liquor intoxicating the world amid pandemic; exports exceed ¥100 billion

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An executive of Nagahama Roman Beer checks whiskey at the company’s distillery in Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture, on Oct. 1.

Exports of Japanese alcoholic beverages are booming, setting a new record for their value for 10 consecutive years and topping ¥100 billion for the first time in 2021. Whiskey and sake, in particular, each increased 70% from the previous year, thanks to growing demand from foreigners who could not travel to Japan due to the pandemic.

Entering a building that was converted from a rice warehouse, you can smell the sweet aroma unique to unblended malt whiskey.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Nagahama Roman Beer Co. in Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture, has been producing local beer for many years, but in 2016, it entered the whiskey-producing business as well.

At a distillery located inside the building, whiskey made from malted barley is packed in casks and left to mature for a number of years. In 2018, the company launched a product blended with overseas whiskey that won an award for the best Japanese blended malt at a product review held in the U.K. in February 2020.

Orders from overseas have increased and the product is now sold in about 30 countries, mainly in Asia and Europe.

“We’re small in scale, but we want to make whiskey that people around the world will know about,” said a 50-year-old executive in charge of production.

Popular brands in short supply

According to the National Tax Agency, the export value of whiskey was about ¥4 billion in 2013, and it has been increasing year by year, reaching about ¥19.4 billion in 2019. Growth accelerated further after the pandemic, increasing to approximately ¥27.1 billion in 2020 and ¥46.1 billion in 2021.

“Orders from overseas are two to three times the level before the spread of the novel coronavirus,” said Yuki Okada, the president of Jem Industries Corp., an exporter of whiskey and other products in Osaka City.

Aficionados of whisky, especially in China, who can’t visit Japan due to the pandemic are believed to be buying well-known brands such as Suntory Holdings Ltd.’s Yamazaki and Hibiki. These brands are in short supply even in Japan and are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.

Amid this situation, craft whiskey produced by small distilleries such as Nagahama Roman Beer is gradually gaining popularity. “The strength of craft whiskey is that it’s made with an earnest approach to brewing and no corners are cut,” said Okada, 38. He also said Japanese whiskey lovers are increasing in France and other European countries.

Sake around the world

Japanese sake is also gaining popularity, partly due to the registration of washoku, or Japanese traditional dietary culture, as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2013. Last year, sake exports increased to approximately ¥40.1 billion, up ¥16 billion from the previous year.

Asahi Shuzo Co., the maker of famous sake brand Dassai in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, achieved overseas sales of about ¥6.8 billion in the fiscal year ending September 2021. This was the first time that overseas sales surpassed the company’s domestic take, which was approximately ¥6.5 billion in the same period.

“Our efforts from around 2005 to develop overseas markets through sales promotion by top company staff have born fruit,” said CEO Kazuhiro Sakurai, 45.

In fiscal 2021, the government also lifted a ban on new entrants into the sake industry just for those making sake for export. Six businesses have already received licenses, including Konohanano Brewery in Asakusa, Tokyo, which has begun exporting sake to the United States, China and other countries.

The brewery was originally involved in the production of doburoku unfiltered, unrefined sake. A representative said, “We hope to expand our sales channels through synergies with sake.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An executive of Konohanano Brewery checks sake in Taito Ward, Tokyo.