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Suntory eyes U.S. canned cocktail push as young Japanese shun booze

Suntory’s canned cocktail -196 Double Lemon is for sale at a store in Sydney, Australia September 2, 2022. REUTERS/Sam Holmes

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TOKYO, Sept 5 (Reuters) – Japanese drinks giant Suntory Inc this past year debuted a solid, lemony brew in Australia that quickly became the very best seller in the canned cocktail market there.

Now the business is looking to replicate that success in THE UNITED STATES, critical to its aim in becoming the global leader in the fastest growing alcoholic drinks segment.

Expanding overseas can be a matter of survival for Japanese drinks companies facing aging market in the home and a shift from alcohol among younger people.

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“Australia is an extremely important test market for the global strategy,” said Makoto Kitaura, a senior general manager at Suntory.

“If we’ve successful in Australia, then other Western countries just like the U.S., the united kingdom may have a pastime to try a fresh brand. And we are able to see huge growth potential with the U.S. market.”

The business tapped a localisation team to adapt its Japanese best seller Strong Zero for the Australian market: The lemony tang was tweaked, and the alcohol was dialled down from the hefty 9% to a far more drinkable 6%.

In addition, it branded the canned cocktail -196 Double Lemon in Australia, highlighting the extreme cold that Suntory claims it uses to extract flavours from fruit.

“It sold-out almost soon after launching,” said Alana House, the editor of Sydney-based Drink Digest.

The drink, price at about A$4.50 ($3.10) for an 11 oz can, had the benefit of being regarded as a “cult” Japanese product, with a solid flavour profile and higher alcohol by volume (ABV) content, 6% versus 4.5% for an average beer in the united kingdom, she added.

The global canned cocktail market, which Japanese beverage makers created some 40 years back with drinks known locally as “chu-his”, is currently the fastest growing alcoholic drink segment, as pandemic restrictions prompted more folks to imbibe in the home and cut higher calorie drinks like beer.

The marketplace, known in the market as ready-to-drink (RTD), saw double-digit sales growth through the pandemic, and Suntory believes global canned cocktail sales will double again from 2020 levels to a lot more than $60 billion in 2030.

TOUGH U.S. MARKET

Another & most important hurdle in Suntory’s worldwide ambition is tackling the massive U.S. market. The business already includes a foothold after its 2014 takeover of Beam Inc, maker of Jim Beam whiskey. The business stood up a worldwide canned cocktail division in March and its own American-based team found Tokyo in June to collaborate on strategy.

Hard seltzers dominate the U.S. sector, with top brands White Claw and Truly drawing about $10.8 billion in sales in the five years through 2021, general market trends provider, Euromonitor International said.

Suntory has made small inroads in to the U.S. market via its Sauza cocktail collaboration with Boston Beer Co., making Truly.

The business didn’t say which canned cocktails from of its expansive catalogue it hopes to create to U.S. shores. But Double Lemon would start at a disadvantage to entrenched competitor Mike’s Hard Lemonade, which costs about $2.50 for a 12 oz can. Mike’s became a runway hit following its debut 20 years back, with marketing that some critics said appealed to young underage drinkers.

But logistics and taxes remain the larger challenges. Suntory’s historic strength is in spirits and U.S. distribution networks for spirits are narrower than those for beer along with other malt-based drinks.

Meanwhile, canned cocktails that use hard liquor like vodka or gin are taxed at about 45 cents a can, weighed against about 8 cents for the seltzers that use malt liquor. Double Lemon, for instance, uses shochu, a normal Japanese liquor distilled usually from sweet potatoes.

Also complicating the strategy, the canned cocktail market is highly fragmented and finely tailored to local tastes, with differences in alcohol bases, flavours, and drinking habits.

Yogurt-based drinks are popular in China, for instance, while cider-like versions sell South Africa. The U.S. market has had to light, berry-flavoured brews.

“What realy works in a single market might not always work in another,” said Brandy Rand, an analyst at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. “It is a much harder category to translate to across borders. It isn’t like selling a Chardonnay or perhaps a vodka, categories which are known internationally.”

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Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Sam Holmes

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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