How The Whisky Highball Got Canned
While some artisanal canned cocktails have succeeded in the U.S. market, the Western world still turns its nose up to pre-mixed cocktails. Therefore, it may be surprising that canned whiskey highballs have been trending in Japan for many years, especially for whisky purists who wouldn’t dare dilute this spirit with soda water and ice, let alone drink it from a can! So why does a country that produces some of the most coveted whisky in the world love canned highballs just as much? In this post, we explore how canned whisky highballs came into existence and why they continue to be a staple in Japan today.
The production of whisky in Japan began before the turn of the century, but the first commercial production was in 1924 when Yamazaki, the country's first distillery, was opened by Shinjiro Torii (the founder of Suntory). Around the same time, foreigners in Japan were frequently requesting whisky and soda at bars and bottled versions of this drink started to appear on the market. In the 1950’s, Shinjiro Torii established the chain of “Tory’s Bars” that specialized in bottled highballs. Highballs experienced a post-war golden age in Japan. During the 1980s, these whisky highballs fell out of fashion and whisky sales throughout Japan started to decline. The new generation found whisky to be intimidating and not particularly food-friendly, plus they just couldn’t help but think of it as an old man’s tipple. While Japanese whisky exports started to increase after Nikka's 10-year Yoichi single malt won "Best of the Best" at Whisky Magazine's awards in 2001, it continued to experience a 26-year long slump in the domestic market. By 2008, Suntory was the second largest beverage company in Japan, yet the very beverage it built its foundation on was no longer popular.
To help revive domestic whisky sales and attract younger consumers, Suntory reintroduced the bottled whisky highball. Of course, this was not a new invention, but they marketed it to a new audience as an easy-drinking, refreshing beverage. And perhaps thanks to their TV commercial campaign featuring starlet Koyuki, the campaign was a success. The number of establishments in Japan that began servings their bottled highballs rocketed. Suntory also opened a series of dedicated highball bars and premixed whisky highballs became available on tap. In 2009, Suntory came up with another great idea to attract a younger clientele and that was, of course, the canned highball. Why did the canned highball work? Because with it, whisky became approachable again. When diluted, the proof is lower and the spirit becomes less intense; it’s just as easy to pair with food as it is to drink on its own, straight out of the can. Canned whisky highballs quickly became available in convenience stores and vending machines all over the country, so they were accessible drinks that could easily substitute for beer - Japan’s long-time preferred beverage. They also became an alternative to the chuhai, a canned shochu highball that had been popular for many years in Japan and was possibly what paved the way for canned whisky highballs. Even non-Japanese whisky highballs started to appear in can form, including Jack Daniel’s No. 7 and Jim Beam.
Another important factor when explaining the initial (and current) popularity of canned whisky highballs is the price as they fall into a lower tax category and can be even cheaper than beer in Japan. Not all whisky highballs are cheap, of course. With a cocktail culture focused on precision and mastery, the same care can easily go into highballs. That’s why there are many dedicated highball bars throughout Japan where bartenders are very methodical about using the right ice and correct proportions. They even stir the concoction a specific number of times to create the perfect highball. Likewise, not all canned highballs are cheap. Nikka’s Pure Malt Taketsuru 12 Year canned highball uses a very high-quality whisky and costs significantly more than other canned whisky highballs. Nonetheless, there is a duality to Japanese whisky. On the one hand, cheap highballs are wildly popular in Japan. On the other hand, Japanese whisky is a sought after luxury product internationally and Suntory has been careful to maintain its premium image in the global market by limiting exports of its cheaper whiskies and canned highballs.
Suntory’s original highball marketing campaign was triumphant - it ignited the Japanese highball trend and paved the way for it to be available on-the-go all over Japan. But the intention of this campaign was never about the highball itself. Rather, it was meant to serve as a gateway to Japanese whisky and to spark the youth’s interest in historic distilleries like Yamazaki and Hakushu. Time will tell if Japan has truly reversed its domestic whisky sales in the long-run, but one thing is for sure: canned highballs are here to stay and cheers to that!