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Spotlights and Deep-Dives

Converting Herbivores: How Suntory Horoyoi Won Over Non-Drinkers in Japan

Brand Spotlight: Suntory Horoyoi

The new-age Japanese "Herbivore Person" isn't looking to drown their sorrows in a glass of whisky. Instead, they're content with a gentle buzz and a drink that doesn’t wrestle with their taste buds. This paradigm shift sets the stage for brands like Suntory's Horoyoi to take the spotlight.

 

Japanese alcohol companies back in the early 2000s realised that the landscape of the Japanese market is changing. Sales of beer and whisky were falling especially with the younger generation, and there was a sense of alienation from alcohol.

Once an arena dominated by the full-bodied sakes, beers and whiskies, younger adults in Japan were increasingly alienating themselves from alcohol. Beer was too bitter and whisky was too strong.

Although strong sakes and liquors were avoided, one type of alcohol maintained its popularity amongst the palate of the modern Japanese in their 20s and 30s. Chuhai (shochu highballs) at izakayas and convenience stores remained very popular with customers, most of them having a low alcohol content in the 3% range.

 

Furries are now mainstream in Japan, mainly thanks to popular allegorical anime Beastars that draws inspiration from the interesting concept of “herbivore” or “carnivorous” people in Japanese zeitgeist.

 

Enter the "Herbivore Men," or Sōshoku-kei Danshi (草食系男子). The sociological term refers to a growing breed of Japanese men who approach life in a more gentle, less assertive manner compared to their “carnivorous” counterparts (in English-speaking cultures, it’s kinda like a Softboy vs Fuckboy dichotomy). More likely to be found nurturing houseplants or cats than nursing whiskies, these individuals seek balance in self-care, personal interests, and platonic friendships rather than hustle culture or sexual conquests.

 

The original Japanese softboi/herbivore man? International best-selling author Haruki Murakami has a documented love for cats, reading and generally being an introvert. He does love his whisky, though.

 

Reflecting this shift, fruity cocktails and chuhai have found their moment in Tokyo’s nightlife. A low-alcohol, often fruity beverage, chuhai caters to those who want to enjoy a drink without the potent kick or bitter aftertaste. Remember, we're talking about a generation who would, at the end of a long day, much rather pick up origami paper or a game controller instead of a bottle of liquor.

In this world, it’s the lighter, sweeter, and more colourful drinks that take center stage. Consider the popularity of umeshu, a sweet plum wine that’s as likely to be sipped on a summer afternoon as it is during a night out. Or look to the fruity chuhai, beverages that pop with the vibrant flavors of white peach, strawberry, or yuzu.Indeed, according to a survey by Macromill, 81% of Japanese men in their 20s look for sweetness and shun bitterness in the alcohols they drink.

The emergence and acceptance of these sweet, low-alcohol beverages signify a changing attitude towards drinking. The Herbivore Men, along with many of their peers, aren’t looking to drown their sorrows in a glass of whisky. Instead, they're content with a gentle buzz and a drink that doesn’t wrestle with their taste buds. This paradigm shift sets the stage for brands like Suntory's Horoyoi to take the spotlight.

Enter the Suntory Horoyoi

 

Horoyoi's playbook was simple: be gentle, be sweet, and don’t overwhelm. It was, in essence, designed to not taste like alcohol. A far cry from the burn of whiskies or the bitter hoppiness of certain beers, Horoyoi was as easy to drink as a juice. Even when compared to certain non-alcoholic sodas, Horoyoi had a slightly lower level of carbonation and fizziness.

 

 

The term Horoyoi (ほろよい) in Japanese describes a state of intoxication and tipsiness. Suntory's Horoyoi brand looks to capture this pleasantly buzzed feeling, being a line of lower ABV alcoholic sodas designed to provide an easy drinking experience. 

 

Mr Shinji Yamada who headed Suntory’s RTD (ready-to-drink) department which developed the Horoyoi was initially not a fan of the name “Horoyoi”.

 

Mr Shinji Yamada who headed the department that developed Suntory's Horoyoi wasn’t a fan of the name “Horoyoi” at the start. To his 50-something year-old-mind, “Horoyoi” brought to mind the image of a homeless drunkard, staggering through the streets. However, after extensive surveys and focus group discussions, Yamada accepted that “Horoyoi” had a cute and connotation amongst young adults. This was, after all, a low alcohol drink with only 3% ABV.

Its friendly taste and playful branding resonated well with its target consumers – young women, the so-called Herbivore Men and generally people who rarely drink alcohol. Think of it as a little bit of fun in a can, a feel-good beverage that doesn't leave you feeling bloated or bowled over.

 

 

And while frequent drinkers and older Japanese folks might find Horoyoi too sweet, or completely lacking in alcohol potency, Horoyoi’s soft appeal acted like a “come hither” for those who have been on the fringes of Japan’s drinking culture. It's an inviting, warm hug in a market that can often feel cold and uninviting to some. So, it's no surprise that Horoyoi has been winning hearts left, right, and center.

The Colourful Palette of Horoyoi  

Horoyoi's charm comes not just from its inviting brand persona or its easy-on-the-taste approach to alcohol, but also from its imaginative variety of flavours. There's always a flavour to match the drinker’s mood, season, or even the time of day. In a way, the multitude of flavours makes Horoyoi not just a drink, but a lifestyle companion.

 

The classic Lemon and Ume Horoyoi flavours were the first to grace store shelves when Horoyoi was first launched.

 

The following years, the White Sour, Grape Sour and Honey Lemon were released.

 

Sure, you've got your traditional Lemon and Ume - the classic flavours that first graced store shelves back in '09. But that was just the beginning. Suntory didn't stop there. Oh no, they got creative. Fast forward to today, and Horoyoi's flavour roster reads like a fruit salad on steroids. Think juicy Peaches, crisp Apples, and tantalizing White and Grape Sours. And that's not even touching on the seasonal specials like winter-only Strawberry and a delectably tropical Mango Sour. A Japanese magazine had taken the effort to count the total number of  varieties available and found there were at least 91 flavour variants.

 

The classic range of Horoyoi as of 2021.

 

There's an audacious playfulness to this ever-evolving lineup. Each new flavour comes in an attractive, vibrant packaging, a little adventure in a can, purchased by Japanese consumers as a reward for themselves after a long day of work. It's this sense of fun and novelty that has made Horoyoi such a hit, particularly with younger consumers who love a good surprise.

So, how does Horoyoi actually taste? That's what we're about to find out for ourselves ...

Horoyoi Grape Shochu Cocktail, 3% ABV – Review

 

Colour: Grape candy.

Nose: Very bright, candied, sweet. The journey begins with a nose that's unmistakably sweet and candy-like, with potent notes of de-skinned Kyoho grapes. This isn't an austere wine-like grape scent but rather, it's something more akin to a big pack of grape gummies, complete with a delicate hint of tartness that promises the effervescence of soda to follow.

Palate: Once again candied and refreshing. With the first sip, the drink reveals its refreshing personality. There's an initial dance of light fizziness on the tongue, soon followed by the standout taste of candied Kyoho grapes. This isn't just an echo of grape flavour; it feels like diving into a bag of Japanese grape gummies. The fizziness remains moderate throughout, providing just the right amount of tart kick to balance out the sweetness. And the best part? The alcohol is virtually undetectable.

Finish: Concise and light. It doesn't linger heavily on your palate. Rather, it's a fleeting sweetness of those candy-like grape flavours.

 

(Source: Tsunagu Japan)

My Thoughts: This is a nostalgic treat. It strikes the right balance between indulgent sweetness and crisp refreshment that constantly leads you to reach for another sip. It conjures up fond memories of my childhood when grape gummies were an absolute delight.

This isn't a sugary overload. The sweetness level is measured, nowhere near the intensity of a sugary soda like Mountain Dew. A charming creation that skillfully straddles the line between being a fizzy soda beverage and beloved childhood candy, it's easy to see why Horoyoi Grape has so many fans who typically do not drink.

Just be warned: its innocent, grape soda-like taste would easily captivate any child that gets a taste. Keep it away from them!

Horoyoi White Grape Shochu Cocktail, 3% ABV – Review

 

Colour: Transparent with very huge, lively bubbles.

Nose: Even more refreshing, and surprises me right off the bat. Instead of a grape-forward scent, I’m greeted with a fresh blast of mint that dominates the profile, with a profile that's been steeped in sweet lemonade and soda water. The effect is strikingly similar to a well-minted Mojito. The scent of white grapes is present, but it is more of a background whisper rather than a headline act.

Palate: Light and refreshing. As we move on to the taste, the white grape finally makes its appearance. It shares the stage with the zesty tartness of soda and an intentional touch of herbaceous mintiness. The overall flavour could be likened to a soda infused with mint and splashed with white grape juice. It's tart, crisp and noticeably lighter in taste compared to the red grape Horoyoi.

Finish: Remarkably brief, it’s a fleeting trail of green grape tartness that's barely there before it's gone.

 

 

My thoughts: Horoyoi White Grape comes across as a crisp, refreshing alcoholic soda, offering a light sweet tang of white grapes. I find it just mildy sweet, earning it some 'adult points', making it ideal for those who prefer their drinks to taste less sugary. It would pair well with light tasting foods, and would be ideal for picnics on a hot day.

Once again, the alcohol content completely unnoticeable. The chief concern for me, despite its light and refreshing nature, is still the fizziness of it that might leave you feeling a bit bloated if you indulge in half a glass of this stuff too quickly. Enjoy, but pace yourself.

Horoyoi Umeshu Shochu Cocktail, 3% ABV – Review

 

Colour: Light gold with tons of effervescence. Looks the same as a Jim Beam highball.

Nose: I can't help but notice its striking similarity to the aroma of Strong Zero's Double Ume. Characterized by a distinct, syrupy sweetness and light tartness from umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum) and umeshu. Light floral notes reminiscent of honeysuckle flowers add an extra layer to the mix. It has a gentle sourness and just a hint of a cough syrup-like aroma.

Palate: Plummy, juicy, syrupy. The first sip greets you with a lively zing of soda. The palate bursts open with a juicy sweetness, similar to a well-made umeshu highball. It maintains a syrupy character, similar to a Choya, along with the tart fruitiness one associates with plums.

Finish: Of moderate length, leaving behind the light sweetness of honey, the distinctive note of syrupy umeshu, and just a hint of mint leaves. A pleasant closure to each sip.

 

 

My thoughts: I like that this teases and titillates the senses with its lively tartness and distinct umeshu profile. This combo of tartness and distinct umeshu notes presents an excellent complement to oily dishes. Whether you're having fried ramen or chicken rice, the fruitiness and acidity of this drink make it an effective palate cleanser, cutting through the richness and enhancing the dining experience.

Conclusion:

Reflecting on the entire lineup of Horoyoi beverages that we've explored, it's clear that each variant brings its own unique charm to the table, shining brightest in different contexts. Keep in mind that this drink is designed specifically for new drinkers or people who rarely drink, so it’s only fair we evaluate these drinks as we would a non-alcoholic soda.

Like a nostalgic bag of grape gummies, the (Red) Grape Horoyoi has a very rich sweet Kyoho grape profile that renders it a standalone delight. It’s a sweet treat that you probably wouldn’t be drinking too many in a row.

The White Grape variant, on the other hand, has a distinct character. We're met with a crisp, refreshing drink that seems perfectly cut out for outdoor picnics during a warm summer day. It's lighter, more subdued sweetness coupled with an effervescence that dances on the tongue makes it an ideal thirst quencher in Japan’s punishing summers or just another day in Southeast Asia.

Finally, the Horoyoi Umeshu introduces a distinctively Japanese profile. It's not hard to imagine it fitting perfectly in an izakaya dinner setting, with its balance of sweet and tart plum flavours. The zingy characteristic of this beverage offers an excellent counterbalance to heavier, oilier dishes like fried chicken karrage or okonomiyaki. This is one drink that completes an enjoyable dining experience.

 

Suntory constantly churns out new Horoyoi flavours, including the Hapikle. This is based on a popular yoghurt and probiotic drink in Japan similar to Yakult or Vitagen. Curious yet? Yup that's the whole point! 

 

The Horoyoi line-up is really about offering variety and versatility. Each variant appeals to different tastes and situations, while ensuring the beverages remain accessible even for those who are not regular drinkers. And quite frankly, with over 90 flavour variants to choose from, there’s a lot more variants that I’m very keen to try provided that I’m not at risk of diabetes. We’re really just touching the tip of the iceberg here.

@CharsiuCharlie