N.B. This post has been updated in 2019 with a new interview and current trends in Japan.
When it comes to the global Cognac market, Japan plays a pivotal role. And over the decades it’s been a tale of boom and bust, with dramatic changes shaping not only that of eau-de-vie – but also of all other spirits. We take a look over the course that the Cognac market has taken in Japan: beginning in the 80s and 90s, through to the 00s of the 21st century.
With insider information from two Cognac connoisseurs, we have a unique insight into the state of Cognac in Japan thanks to Yasushi Tsutsui, a Japanese blogger who gave us information in 2010, and now in 2019, we speak to a Cognac connoisseur in Japan, Brandy Daddy to get a bit more of an insight into current trends of the Cognac market in Japan.
Boom and Bust: Japan’s Cognac industry in the 80s and 90s
Referred to as, “the lost decade”, Japan suffered an explosive crisis in the early 1990s, where economic expansion was halted for more than 10 years. The Cognac industry suffered greatly, mainly because of the short-sightedness of some brands placing “all their eggs in one basket”. Such was the growth of sales to Japan during the 1980s (Cognac sales were growing at around 10% per year) that when the crash occurred, it had a tremendous effect on the houses that had plowed so much effort into sales there.
Quotes from a New York Times article in 1988
- “Cognac became popular in Japan relatively recently. Sales rose to 8 million bottles last year from 2.6 million in 1978.”
- ”The Japanese are beginning to travel more to France,” said Michelle Proud, an industry analyst with Wood MacKenzie in London. ”French products have a reputation for representing what is fashionable, stylish and smart” among the Japanese, she said.
- In Japan, Cognac has become quite the rage among executives entertaining at bars on expense accounts. Businessmen often pay more than $300 for a bottle that they drink slowly with soda. The cost is that high because the Japanese tend to buy older cognacs. In addition, there are steep import duties and cognac makers and bar owners take a large mark-up.
- ”When we entertain clients in our bars or clubs, it is very good to offer them a fine bottle of Cognac,” said Seiichi Nagata, president of Suntory France, the Paris-based subsidiary of Japan’s largest spirits company.
Yasushi’s insight into Cognac and Japan in 2010
Back in 2010 a Japanese blogger about Cognac, Yasushi Tsutsui, told Cognac Expert about Japanese Cognac culture. Whilst this information is now somewhat dated, it provides a fascinating insight into the resurgence of liquor in a country that suffered one of the worst recessions in recent history.
At the time, strong growth was continuing in China but did not hold out too much hope of a major recovery in Cognac’s Asian stronghold of Japan. In fact, Cognac consumption in Japan had begun to decline.
However, Japan held its place as a market for high-end Cognac products. To give an example: 30 bottles of Rémy Martin’s premium Cognac Louis 13 Black Pearl Magnum were released in Japan, which makes up nearly 10% of all bottles, 358 in total (Asahi Beer holds the rights to distribute Rémy Martin in Japan).
Below we have summed up the key points as told by Tsutsui:
- “In Japan, Cognac does not play such an important role; there aren’t many people who drink Cognac. Perhaps this is also because the quantity of Cognac shops, where the eau-de-vie is available, is very limited.”
- “Lately, not only Cognac but also other spirits are getting less important – but scotch, vodka, and rum are still alive. You will find any of those liquors in any bar in Japan. On the other hand, there are not a lot of Cognac bars in Japan; and if a bar offers Cognac – those are often the known brands: Hennessy V.S.O.P, Hennessy X.O., Remy Martin V.S.O.P., Camus V.S.O.P. and so on.”
- “Most of the people in Japan see Cognac as a very expensive drink and it is considered as a rich man’s drink. There is a reason for that: For more than 20 years, the import taxes on Cognac were very high. But today, the taxes are really low – but the image of Cognac being expensive remained.”
- “Actually, the Japanese Yen is very strong right now, so we can buy Cognac for quite a low price, even lower than in France where the consumption tax is about 20% – in Japan only 5%.”
- “To give you an example: One of my favorite Cognacs is Frapin VSOP: we can buy it here in Japan for only 2,980 Yen – that’s 23 €!”
Cognac & liquor in Japan today
Thankfully the fortunes for Japan today, compared to previous decades, are far rosier. Cognac, as well as whisky and brandy and, of course, Saki, are driving liquor sales.
In fact, the market has once again climbed to take its place upon the winner’s podium on the global stage, with estimated annual liquor sales of 4 trillion yen (that’s an incredible $35,748,000,000 USD). When we’re talking about revenue, this amounts to $13,915 million USD as of 2019, with an expected increase of 1% year on year to 2023.
New Cognac products dedicated to the Japanese market
Fast forward yet another decade, and the story has changed even more dramatically. Such is the demand for high-quality spirits that the French market, in particular, are creating products that specifically target Japan.
For instance, Park Cognac has created an entire range of Cognacs dedicated to the wonders of this unique Japanese wood.
The first of these to come to market was the Park Minzunara Japanese Oak, the first Cognac ever to have the aging process finished off in Japanese Mizunara oak barrels. Jérôme and Lilian Tessendier, the two brothers behind Park Cognac cleverly created a Cognac that would really appeal to the palates of those who enjoy Japanese whisky.
It was a huge success. And since then two more products have been added to the line-up: The Park Borderies Mizunara Single Cask 2006 and the brand new, Park Mizunara 10 Years.
Also included is the Monteru Ippon, a brandy that’s created in the Cognac region and aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks. Read more about this in our blog article, Monteru Ippon Brandy: A luxurious novelty “a la Japanese”.
The bestselling Cognacs in Japan – according to trends
Now, this may surprise you somewhat. As one would expect, the might of Hennessy comes out as the number one Cognac brand in Japan. But there’s an upset in the apple cart. And that comes in the form of Camus, who are vying for the number two spot with Rémy Martin. The other two world leaders, Martell and Courvoisier, are certainly less purchased in Japan, and this has become more apparent over the past decade.
Cognac in Japan Today: 10 questions with connoisseur “Brandy Daddy”
Of course, you can’t get better information about what’s going on within the industry than from one who’s actually living it. We were lucky enough to have Brandy Daddy help us out with research, and provide us with his thoughts and knowledge to the following questions.
1.Cognac Expert: It appears that in Japan Camus Cognac is more well-known than both Courvoisier and Martell. Is that so? And if yes, any idea why?
Brandy Daddy: I think it is correct. One factor is the company who front the brands in Japan. Martell is Pernod Ricard Japan and Camus is Asahi. Asahi is much more familiar for the Japanese. Suntory (Courvoisier) is also famous though…
Ordinary people may visit Asahi’s or Suntory’s website, but they don’t search for Pernod Ricard. I think ordinary people have never heard of the name Pernod Ricard.
Personally, I think the other factor is its name “CAMUS”. There is a famous American Japanese TV personality, “Thane Alexander Camus” (nothing to do with Cognac though). Maybe for many Japanese people, the name of Camus sounds familiar.
2. CE: Which category would you say is the main competitor of Cognac in Japan? Whisky? Rum? Something else?
BD: Whisky is too large of a market. Rum or gin might be competitors… I hope Cognac will be able to compete with whisky.
3.CE: Do you think Japanese people are interested in Park Mizunara?
BD: Those who enjoy whisky are going to be interested in Park Mizunara. However, I tasted it with other 10 whisky lovers (they are experts). They all said it is quite different from what they imagine from the Mizunara barrel. So, I think how to plug the gap is the key factor for whisky lovers in Japan.
4. CE: What does Mizunara represent in Japan? What are the values or topics associated with it?
BD: That’s a difficult question. For me, I think of whisky, Hokkaido…
5. CE: How do Cognac lovers connect in Japan? Forums? Events? Social media?
BD: Unfortunately, there are few forums, events, social media for Cognac in Japan… Even I don’t know that much. I sometimes join the Cognac seminar which is hold by Shuiku-no-kai.
6. CE: Where do connoisseurs like you buy Cognac?
BD: I mainly use big online shops such as Rakuten, Amazon, etc. Other shops that are famous for Cognac in Japan are Shinanoya, Liquors Hasegawa – Tanakaya in Mejiro Tokyo is also famous.
7. CE: What is the perception of Cognac in Japan today? Is it thought of as a luxury and expensive? And is it a drink for old men, or young and stylish?
BD: In Japan, Cognac is thought of as for “for old rich men”. A stereotypical image. I think it comes from a famous Japanese song, “Brandy Glass.” by Yujiro Ishihara in 1977.
My personal thought is that more than 99.9% of Japanese people don’t know the difference between Cognac and other brandy. Many people even don’t know the difference between Cognac and whisky.
8. CE: Have you noticed any trends in Cognac cocktails?
BD: Personally I like Nikolaschka. And I simply like Cognac with ginger ale.
9. CE: What are some of the best bars in which to drink Cognac in Japan?
BD: I only know bars in Tokyo and Fukuoka. I recommend the following:
i. Bar Doras, Askusa District, Tokyo
It might be that Doras is one of the most famous Cognac bars in Japan. The owner, Nakamori, has many connections with Cognac maisons. You can check out their Instagram here.
ii. Doux Bar, Ginza District, Tokyo
Doux is my favorite bar. It has very many Cognac and French rums. I sometimes collaborate with its owner on my blog.
iii. Donna Selvatica, Shibuya District, Tokyo
This bar has a wide selection of Cognacs and grappa (Especially Romano Levi). There are many lovely Cognac bars in Japan, but I can’t decide which one is the best…
10. CE: Can you name the most popular Cognac brands among connoisseurs in Japan? Is there any specific house (outside of the top 5) that is popular?
BD: Without including the top 5, I think Cognac Paul Giraud is the most popular in Japan. Currently, the official importer of Paul Giraud in Japan is Japan Import System (JIS), and they are working hard to spread the word. Paul Giraud Cognacs that are imported by JIS have a different label specific to Japan original. In addition, the blending is a little different from the rest of the world. Paul Giraud sparkling juice is also popular.