PARIS – Using a three-pronged ice crusher, the bartender strikes the massive frozen block with practiced precision.
In no time at all, he is able to shape the ice block into a tiny ball – small enough to fit into a whisky glass. He pours the Hibiki 12, a 12-year-old whiskey, one of the prime products made by the Suntory alcoholic beverage group.
This “ice ball” is one of the ways Japanese people enjoy their whiskey. And now the trend is coming to France, where Japanese whiskeys are becoming hugely popular.
Japanese producer Nikka sold about 300,000 bottles of whiskey in France in 2012, and plans to sell 380,000 more this year. The main reason behind this enthusiasm is that people want to try new kinds of whiskeys, with new spices and flavors.
The other reason is that France has always had a certain fascination for Japanese culture – from its manga graphic novels to its green tea. “Japan is a fascinating country. Its whiskies have a story to tell. And they are conquering a new younger, more feminine customer base,” says Thierry Benitah, CEO of La Maison du Whisky (The House of Whiskey), that distributes Nikka in France and Europe.
In France, Japanese whiskeys are considered as high-end products. That’s not necessarily the case in their home country, where the range and choice of whiskeys is very wide.
Japanese alcoholic beverages are often presented in a very recognizable bottle, like Nikka from the Barrel, the brand’s best-selling whiskey, which is sold in a very simple, minimalist, rectangular flask.
In Japan, gifts are very important, and Japanese whisky brands cater to this particular market. They sell gift boxes, particularly at the end of the year or for father’s day. The design of Nikka’s gift box is inspired by origami – the art of paper folding.
Suntory’s Hibiki 12 will be on the market in June in a wooden box, with a bottle is shaped like a diamond and a very fine tumbler. The box is wrapped in a cloth, furoshiki style – the art of wrapping presents in cloth. The other whiskeys of the brand will also be wrapped in elaborate furoshikis.
To make its products a little more accessible, Suntory –which is celebrating this year its 90th anniversary – has launched a smaller, new 500ml format for its Hibiki 12. It is also mulling over launching a less expensive whiskey.
New ways to enjoy whiskey
To appeal to new customers, Japanese brands are diversifying. They are also working on whiskey and food matching. Suntory has partnered with famous chefs and bartenders in Paris luxury hotels and high-end restaurants. For instance chef Daniel Rose or the barman of the Plaza Athenee hotel Thierry Fernandez.
During the cherry blossom season, chef Sakura France, in Paris, prepared bentos – Japanese dishes served in boxes – with dishes cooked with Nikka whiskeys. Star butcher Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec and chocolate maker Jacques Genin had helped her to pair whiskeys with her dishes.
Whiskeys are not the only alcoholic beverages from Japan to have become popular in France. Sake, a beverage made from fermented rice, is also becoming very trendy. In June, there will even be a Sake Tasting Fair – the first of its kind in Paris – at the Bastille Design Center.
Many Japanese alcohols will be presented at this fair, where there will be conferences, tastings and workshops. And because Japanese culture is so popular, there will also be Japanese movies and food.