At the Paris launch of Hibiki 12.
Clotilde Briard

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 stylethe 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.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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