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Suntory Holdings rode two decades of surging popularity for Japanese whisky. Then the coronavirus hit, shutting down cities and means for people to gather. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)
The Big Story

Suntory thirsts for new markets as coronavirus upends whisky empire

CEO Takeshi Niinami says innovation is key to restarting growth

JOHN GAPPER, Nikkei Asian Review editor-at-large, and NANA SHIBATA, Nikkei staff writer | Japan

TOKYO -- When Bob Harris, the jaded movie star played by Bill Murray in the 2003 film "Lost in Translation," flies to Tokyo to advertise Suntory's Hibiki 17-year-old blended whisky, he behaves in a way that now seems reckless. He sings at a karaoke club, rides in a packed elevator, and drinks in a crowded hotel bar. "For relaxing times, make it Suntory time," Murray's character declares.

These are not relaxing times for Suntory Holdings. Its biggest market, Japan, has only just emerged from a COVID-19-induced state of emergency that emptied out bars, restaurants and karaoke clubs. Although customers are now tentatively returning to entertainment venues, the outlook for the drinks business is one of prolonged upheaval.

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