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Spirited away: Celebrating the global rise of Asian spirits
FoodBev Media

FoodBev Media

10 May 2024

Spirited away: Celebrating the global rise of Asian spirits

In the well-established and robust global spirits landscape, a notable trend is emerging: the booming popularity of Asian spirits. From traditional favourites like sake and shochu to innovative craft gins and rice wines, Asian distillers are making waves on the international stage. FoodBev's Phoebe Fraser unpacks how distillers across Asia are carving out a distinct space in the international market, captivating the palates of consumers worldwide.

Asian spirits have long held a revered status in their home countries, with rich cultural traditions and centuries-old craftsmanship shaping their identity. However, in recent years, these spirits have transcended borders. Increasing cultural exchange and globalisation have led to the growing influence of Asian cultures on an international stage.


As consumers seek authentic and immersive experiences, Asian spirits offer a gateway for global consumers to explore the rich tapestry of Asian heritage. The appreciation for spirits has surpassed simple indulgence to become emblematic of special occasions with memorable experiences.


“In the past, Asian spirits were only found in a limited number of restaurants by local expatriates around the world, but Asian food, especially Japanese food, is now the most popular food category in the world, and consumers around the world are driving the demand for these spirits,” Urara Niho, manager, corporate planning department at Kirin Group’s Mercian Corporation, explained.


“With the rise of global exports of Korean pop culture and the well-established exports of Japanese culture, global consumers are now increasingly exposed to Asian products and culture,” Daniel Nguyen, founder of Hanoi, Vietnam-based Sông Cái Distillery, and Brennan Davis, the distillery's account manager, told FoodBev.



The preference for Asian spirits is also spurred on by tourism, with lots of Asian countries being tourist hotspots. “Tourism, consistently on the rise, has brought people from all over the world in search of something different in their travels,” Nguyen and Davis added. “In doing so, they encounter spirit companies showcasing products not readily available in their home country, featuring native and local botanicals such as Thai basil, yuzu or ylang ylang blossom.”


Consumers then return to their countries of origin where they can’t find the taste they experienced on their travels, creating a new demand for these flavours and pushing distributors to widen their portfolios to include a larger variety of spirits.


“Part of the category’s growth is related to Gen Z, who are exploring their preferences for drinking as they come of age,” noted John O'Keeffe, president of Asia Pacific, global travel and India, at Diageo.

“We are finding that they prefer spirits and cocktails, which contributes to consumer interest in Asian spirits such as Baijiu.”



Craftmanship, creativity and culture


The resurgence of interest in artisanal, small-batch spirits has propelled the growth of the Asian craft spirits scene, which is characterised by the boom of hyperlocal, boutique brands and the rejection of the mainstream.


Data company Research and Markets estimates the global craft spirits market to grow at a CAGR of 34% from 2022 to 2027, reaching over $110 billion, with the Asia-Pacific region anticipated to grow at the fastest pace during the period.


Sông Cái Distillery’s Nguyen and Davis linked the increase in the craft sector’s popularity to smaller companies not sacrificing quality over volume and using ingredients and techniques unique to their region. Like the wine industry, there is a growing appreciation for terroir in the spirits world as consumers are drawn to beverages that reflect the unique characteristics of a specific region, from the climate and soil to the local botanicals used in production.



Sông Cái Distillery produces Khà, an 18-month aged rice wine made entirely with glutinous rice fermented by microbials similar to Japanese koji or Korean nuruk. It is distinguished by its tart complex acidity and layers of deep umami, nutty flavours, providing a drink that is said to be similar to Spain’s oloroso sherry or France’s vin jaune. The spirit is aged in a solera-system of neutral wood system and terracotta and was created to honour centuries of traditional Vietnamese rice wine-(rượu cái) making heritage.


“As a brand that is 100% Vietnamese owned, created with and using native Vietnamese botanicals, and with strong ties to the farming communities in the Northwestern and Central Highlands, Sông Cái Distillery is inextricably linked to Vietnam as a place, people and culture,” Nguyen and Davis added.


Established in 2014 and Japan’s first gin-dedicated distillery, The Kyoto Distillery produces KI NO BI, a dry gin crafted with the “finest Japanese tradition and craftmanship”. The gin is made from high-quality rice spirit and water sourced from Fushimi in Kyoto, an area known for sake production as it is located just above a large underground well, filled with high-quality mineral-rich water.


“We spent a lot of time perfecting our recipe and our gin uses botanicals from Kyoto such as yuzu, lemon, sansho pepper, ginger and gyokuro tea sourced at the peak of the season from local producers,” Adrien Timpano, head of global marketing at The Kyoto Distillery told FoodBev. “The name KI NO BI translates to ‘the beauty of the seasons’ in Japanese.”



“One of the key botanicals in our gin is our gyokuro tea, sourced from Uji, Kyoto, a region that is world-famous for its tea gardens. It is very appealing to consumers who are used to umami flavours and those who understand the exceptional quality of the rare tea leaves that go inside the liquid.”


Fresh flavours


Many distillers are using unique flavours, developed using traditional Asian ingredients, to pique consumer curiosity. “Examples include spirits made with yuzu, coconut, bamboo and various types of rice,” Kirin’s Urara Niho said. “We have also developed ‘Yatsusei Wa Citrus,’ a gin made using three types of citrus fruits native to Kumamoto, where its distillery is located. The three citrus fruits – aoyuzu, shiranui and banshakuyuzu – are unique in the world and have given this gin its unique characteristics.”


Other botanicals and flavours making themselves known in the Asia Pacific spirits industry include lemongrass, jackfruit, Thai basil, peppercorn, pomelo, coffee, rice and umami. Mixologists across the globe are expanding their repertoires and understanding of how these flavours play out in cocktails, with their creations being accepted by consumers internationally.


Collaborative success


From a competitive perspective, collaborations and partnerships play a crucial role in driving innovation and expanding market reach. From cross-border collaborations between distillers to partnerships with local farmers and artisans, forging strategic alliances can unlock new opportunities for growth and differentiation.


“In terms of experiences, meeting over food and pairing our brands with food has become an important consumption occasion,” O'Keeffe highlighted. “Last year, we launched Johnnie Walker Blue label Umami, a collaboration with 3-star Michelin Chef Kei Kobayashi and our master blender Emma Walker. It’s an example of an innovative offering that taps into a strong trend, combining the world of whisky and food.”


Sông Cái Distillery has also opened up its platform to collaborations, such as Mẩy, its new amaro bitters that is co-owned by Lý Lở Mẩy, a “medicinal woman” belonging to RedDao, an ethnic group living in Vietnam. Mẩy has distinguishing notes similar to smoky lapsang tea, sasparilla (root beer) and wood tannins and is inspired by a traditional Red Dao medicinal tincture. The spirit is produced from primarily foraged native and heirloom Vietnamese botanicals – 15 botanicals in total including fig, poppy, horehound, angelica root and dandelion root – which are then macerated in neutral spirit distilled from rice and molasses.


Navigating the regulatory landscape of global markets is an important task for Asian distillers. From label requirements to import regulations, compliance with international standards is essential to gaining market access and building consumer trust.


Nguyen and Davis noted that it named the spirit Mẩy Amaro Bitters to make it more favourable for Western consumption. "In Vietnam, this type of spirit is called ‘rượu thuốc,’ which translates to medicinal liqueur,” he added. “‘Amaro Bitters’ is actually an Italian word combined with an English word to meet compliance for Western markets.”


Dating back centuries, Asian spirits have been an integral part of social, religious and ceremonial practices across the region. From the centuries-old craftsmanship of Vietnam's rice wine to the meticulous techniques of Japan's gin distilleries, each spirit carries a unique narrative shaped by its cultural context.


As empires rose and fell, dynasties flourished and waned, and the production and consumption of spirits evolved, reflecting the ebb and flow of Asia’s rich history. Today, as these spirits gain prominence on the global stage, they remain rooted in their rich heritage, offering a taste of history in every sip.


#beverage #Asia #spirits

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