Sold in cans from convenience stores up and down the country, chu-hi is a flavoured alcoholic drink taking Japan by storm. Its made from a mix of shochu – which is an inexpensive, vodka-like spirit distilled from pretty much anything youve got in your cupboard – and one or more of hundreds of different fruit flavours and juices, from orange, mango and grapefruit, to lychee, plum and cream soda.
The word chu-hi itself is a portmanteau of the second syllable of “shochu” and the first of “highball”, as in the cocktail. With an ABV of typically between two and eight per cent, chu-hi appeals to both men and women, as well as to those who prefer a less boozy tipple. The market grows by between five and 25 per cent each year according to Japans largest drinks company Suntory. Ben Stiller advertises chu-hi in a series of semi-ironic television commercials. In effect, Japan has just discovered alcopops.
“Japan has the old rice wine market, the medium to high end whiskey market, and beer,” says Ron Cregan, industry expert and founder of Endangered Species, a movement to protect creative culture. “But for late teenagers and the early 20s, low ABV products were a huge gap in the market. Theyre filling it, and they have the branding power to do it.”
If you dont think the chu-hi trend is worth paying attention to, you need only look at how the big players are reacting to it.
In 1978, Coca-Cola bought up two vineyards in California in an attempt to tap the resurging wine market in the US. It was the companys first foray into alcoholic beverages, and its efforts were met with reasonable success. (One side-effect was the invention of canned wine to be sold on United Airlines flights, an innovation for which oenophiles may never truly forgive the company). But after just four years, Coca-Cola, unimpressed by relatively meagre profit margins in grapes, withdrew from the alcohol trade entirely.
Thirty-six years later, the surge in popularity of chu-hi in Japan has inspired Coca-Cola to get back in the booze game, at least in a small way. The biggest drinks company in the world is launching its own experimental chu-hi in 2018, exclusive to the Japanese market, in an attempt to capitalise on the rising trend for hard soft drinks. The context here is that soda consumption has fallen to a 30 year low in the US, and the recent sugar tax in the UK spells a bleaker future for those with a corporate interest in rotting our teeth.
In a global market thats falling out of love with carbonated sugar-water in a huge way, Coca-Colas hedging efforts already include bottled water brand Dasani and a variety of iced coffees and teas. Tapping the chu-hi market would be the most recent of these ongoing efforts to nudge the companys direction, but it also exemplifies just what a sensation the shochu-infused beverages have become.
Britain already had its love affair with alcopops in the 90s, and their reputation was left somewhere in a gutter outside a Manchester nightclub, but could chu-hi spell their grand resurrection? Cregan thinks not. “The UK is more innovative than Japan when it comes to alcohol. Were leaders rather than followers, so I think its Japan following a trend that didnt exist in their market.”