Wednesday, 12 August 2009
What is this piece of paper? And why is it so highly prized among bar tenders in Japan? Read on ....
I wrote recently about the launch of La Clandestine in Malaysia; since then my Malaysian partners have visited the birthplace of absinthe (Couvet, Switzerland), and their visit has been documented on Facebook and ... again on Facebook!
Having lived and worked in Malaysia, I have some understanding of the issues promoting absinthe in a country and culture that is far removed from Europe or the USA. Not to mention the fact that the religion of Malaysia is Islam, so it's not perhaps the easiest Asian market in which to launch absinthe.
But the basics are similar in Malaysia and in the West: define a strategy that is appropriate for the market, and then implement tactics that meet the strategic needs (have I lost you yet?).
La Clandestine and Angélique were the first absinthes launched in Malaysia, so required a certain strategy and activities: promotions, PR, blogger communication, and bar staff presentations. The Malaysian team has succeeded through implementing all of these.
Japan is different! While Kuala Lumpur is a small Asian city with a few hundred good bars, Tokyo is huge.
There are already many absinthes in the market (as I knew from my visits to Japan in 2006 and 2007). And the basics of getting around from bar to bar (a tough life, but it has to be done) seem impossible.
However once you have worked out which station you need to go and which platform it goes from, everything goes ... quite literally ... like clockwork. The trains are so punctual you can set your watch by them (although Swiss watches rarely need outside intervention!).
Doing business in Asia generally (and even more so in Japan) is subject to its own set of rules. Passport Vietnam, for example, stated in 1997 "It's not unusual for a host to ask a male visitor if he'd like a "companion" ..... Unmarried men who decline are generally assumed to be homosexual and will sometimes be offered a male companion as an option."
Leaving nothing to chance, therefore, Claude-Alain Bugnon wisely took his wife, Karine, and their son, Maxime , on his recent trip to Japan to present his absinthes to bar tenders, sommeliers and consumers from Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka.
The entire visit program was set up by David Zoppetti, who has been running the La Clandestine business in Japan for several years.
David, shown here working behind the bar, is Swiss, and left Switzerland for Japan after his studies 25 years ago. He is now so fluent in Japanese that he has even written a novel in it, subsequently made into a film. He also worked for several years for a Japanese television station.
In 2005, David visited the La Clandestine distillery almost by chance, since he was in the area researching Swiss watches. He found genuine absinthe very exciting, and he and Claude-Alain decided to work together to sell absinthe in Japan.
David soon found an importer willing to work on this venture, Seijo Hishii, and he then began negotiations with the authorities. For those who do not know Japan, it is much more complicated than other markets with regard to product registration and government permissions, so imagine how difficult it was for absinthe! In hindsight, there may be one market that is more difficult ....
Despite this, David continued the process and having gained all the authorizations for absinthe, he did the same for glasses, spoons, the ceramic fountains and even sugar! The authorities asked interesting questions, such as "What material is used for the 4 mm seal on the fountain taps? How is sugar made and with what?"
After almost 2 years work on getting permissions, David was able to start on gaining distribution. David participated in numerous seminars, and got listings in very famous bars. And after another two years, David and Claude-Alain decided to do a promotional tour to help train and educate. "La Clandestine Banzai," as some of their Japanese customers now say!
Photos of Claude-Alain's trip to Japan can be found on Facebook.
What is clear from these photos is the high level of interest the Japanese have in absinthe. Even clearer is their dedication to understanding every last detail.
Of course, once the work has been done, then the Japanese know how to party as well as anyone. But however hard they tried, they still couldn't get Claude-Alain to take off his famous blue lab coat!
And that "piece of paper" at the start of the article? It's a certificate of attendance at one of Claude-Alain's Absinthe training sessions in Japan. Absinthe has been a much misunderstood product for much of its 215 or so years. So training and education is crucial. As crucial in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as it is in the West.
And part of the training sessions run by Claude-Alain was this excellent video. Japanese sub-titles included but for those of my readers in the West, the pictures tell a million words.