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Kirin launches whisky brands to tap foreign drinkers

Activist investor has pressed Japanese beverage group to focus on alcohol business

Kirin's new Fuji whisky will go on sale next month, part of the drinks maker's plan to win market share from arch rival Suntory. (Photo by Nana Shibata)

TOKYO -- Japan's Kirin Holdings will launch two new whisky brands amid intense pressure from activist investors on the beverage group to drop its foray into the healthcare sector.

Japan's second-largest brewer said the two new brands, Fuji and Riku, would go on sale from next month and be aimed at the U.S. and European markets.

"We have been focusing on mainly Japanese customers till now," said Shuichi Negishi, Kirin's senior manager for spirits and international premium segment strategy. "From now on, we aim to be a globally recognized brand that people around the world know."

With annual sales of around 55 billion yen ($513 million), Japan exported 8 million liters of whisky last year, a sixfold increase over the last decade.

Domestic sales of whisky have also increased every year since 2012, due mostly to the popularity of whisky spritzers.

Kirin said its Fuji brand, which will be priced at around 6,000 yen wholesale per bottle for bars and restaurants, is a single grain liquor. Riku will retail for 1,500 yen per bottle.

"We launched the Fuji brand so that people overseas can understand (that it is Japanese whisky)," Negishi said at a news conference Tuesday.

Kirin is hoping that its Fuji brand can help win market share from arch competitor Suntory, the world's third largest distiller, which accounts for nearly 50% of Japanese whisky exports.

Japanese whisky is increasingly popular overseas, with some exclusive batches fetching eye-watering prices.

A single bottle of 50-year-old Yamazaki was auctioned off for over $300,000 in 2018. In January, Suntory announced a lottery for 100 bottles of Yamazaki 55, priced at a little over $27,000 a pop.

Kirin says it expects Japanese whisky sales to bring in 3.9 billion yen this year, up 22% from the previous year.

Kirin said it will also invest 8 billion yen to increase its whisky storage capability by 20 percent, with a storehouse to be added to the Fuji Gotemba Distillery near Tokyo that will start operation in June next year.

With Japan's rapidly ageing population fuelling rising demand for healthcare services, Kirin has in recent years tried to tap into the country's wellness boom.

Last year Kirin purchased a 30.3% stake in cosmetics and health food maker Fancl, adding to its acquisition of a biochemical business from Kyowa Hakko Bio.

Activist investor, London-based Independent Franchise Partners (FP), which owns 2% of Kirin, has been pressuring the company's board to focus solely on alcoholic drinks ahead of the company's annual shareholders meeting on March 27.

The activist group says it has been talking with 60% to 70% of Kirin's Japanese institutional shareholders -- who hold a combined stake of about 30% in the beverage group -- and virtually all of the company's foreign investors, who also hold about 30% of Kirin.

"Whisky is part of Kirin's core alcoholic beverage business," FP's portfolio manager, Michael Allison told Nikkei Asian Review.

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