Why the “Strong Highball” is Booming in Japan

Why the “Strong Highball” is Booming in Japan

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Kirin Strong Chuhai
A popular line of alcoholic drinks is bucking Japan's drinking decline. Here's why it's so cheap - and why some experts are worried.

Thanks to Twitter user Hikosaemon for his original tweet on this subject.

As I’ve written before, Japan’s fame as a drinking culture is somewhat belied by the country’s recent “alcohol flight” (酒離れ; sake-banare). Beer production among the top five manufacturers has declined year over year since 2014. Per-person alcohol consumption has dropped year over year as well – especially among the young. The flight is especially pronounced among the young: only 10.9% of males age 20-29 say they drink regularly.

Naturally, alcohol manufacturers, bars and restaurants are fighting this trend tooth and nail. The “all you can drink” option (飲み放題; nomi-hodai) is one tactic many yakiniku shops and izakaya use to entice customers to drink. Others are sponsoring “subscription” services that provide unlimited booze in exchange for a monthly fee.

But perhaps the best way to entice today’s post-Bubble, budget-conscious Japanese consumer into drinking is to make it cheaper to drink at home. And Japan’s booze manufacturers have found just the thing in the form of strong chuhai, or the strong highball.

Strong Highball: The Ultimate Bang For Your Buck?

The term chuhai comes from 焼酎ハイボール (shochu haiboru), or “shochu highball,” and originally referred to cutting the traditional Japanese liquor shochu with water, soda, or fruit juice. It’s now a general term that refers to any alcoholic drink made with soda, some fruit flavoring (lemon, lime, grapefruit, pear, etc.), and distilled liquor. Canned highballs have been a staple of Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores for years. And, normally, they have a similar alcoholic profile to commercial beer – around 5 to 6% ABV.

In 2008, however, manufacturers upped the ante. Asahi and Kirin both came out with highballs that contained 9% ABV. Then, in 2009, Asahi announced its Strong Zero line of 9% strong highballs. (The “zero” means that no additional sugar is added beyond natural flavors, which makes Strong Zero both potent and diet-conscious.) The rest, as they say, is history. Walk into any conbini in Japan today, and you’ll see that the strong highball options in the booze section abound.


What is the appeal of the strong highball? Sure, it tastes good. But it’s also cheap as hell. As opposed to a 350ml can of beer, which will run upwards of 220 yen, a similar can of a strong highball drink averages about 124 yen. That’s about as cheap as you can get wasted in the privacy of our own home.


Thank You, Tax Loopholes!

Why is the strong highball so cheap? The reason, says writer Kurare at Mag2News, is simple: taxes.

JP Link: The Back Story on Strong Highballs. How the Country Bullied Alcohol Producers into Losing Their Shit

For taxation purposes, under Japan’s alcohol taxation system, beer is broken down into three categories. The first category is traditional malt beer. The second is low-malt beer. The third is “beer-like products” not made through malting or fermentation but through the addition of distilled alcohol.

Malt beer is taxed the highest: a single 220 yen can of beer carries a 77 yen alcohol tax, plus around 22 yen in consumption tax. In other words, nearly half of the price of a can of beer is taxes.

By contrast, a strong highball is essentially treated as a soda or fruit drink with distilled alcohol added to it. A can of strong highball only carries about 22 yen in tax. Furthermore, while third-level beer is also taxed at a fairly low rate, the taxation rate isn’t set to increase as much as the tax on chuhai drinks in the coming years. That makes the strong highball the cheapest booze option on the market – and thus a veritable cash cow for alcohol producers.

Health Concerns

The strong highball love shows no signs of letting up. In fact, one company last year introduced a 12% highball into the market. The strong highball is fueling a “drink at home” (宅飲み; takunomi) trend: last year, the number of people who reported drinking at home rose around 3% compared to the previous year. Fans of the drinks have talked about the satisfaction they find in opening a cold can from the convenience store. One user notes, “It’s less a sake for getting drunk and more one for becoming incoherent.”

While this may be good for alcohol producers, it’s raising public health alarms in Japan. Thanks to strong chuhai’s high alcohol content, it can only take moderate drinkers a couple of cans until they’re good and toasty. Many strong highballs also come in a “long can” (500ml) form, which makes one’s Mean Time to Drunkenness even shorter. Medical experts call that a potential fast track to alcoholism. Medical professionals such as Chief Kawamukai Tetsuya at the Akimoto Hospital in Chiba Prefecture say they’re seeing a rise in alcohol-dependent patients as a result of the cheap access.

JP Link: The Popularity of the High-Alcohol “Strong Series…We Asked Experts on How to Avoid Alcoholism

Kawamukai seems to think the ultimate solution would be to make strong chuhai more costly. But he also advises those who are concerned about becoming dependent to limit themselves to a single can an evening. “I’d like people,” he says, “to enjoy delicious sake appropriately and in moderation.”

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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