A worker at a Coca-Cola plant near Tokyo. (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)

Coca-Cola has announced its Japanese arm will launch a sparkling water drink infused with alcohol, the first time the 125-year-old company has delivered booze since a brief period when it owned a wine company decades ago.

The company’s chief business executive in Japan, Jorge Garduño, said last month that the soft-drink giant was developing a version of chu-hi — a popular fizzy mixed drink. “This is a canned drink that includes alcohol; traditionally, it is made with a distilled beverage called shochu and sparkling water, plus some flavoring,” he said in an interview the company posted on its website.

Coca-Cola, which sells products in 200 countries, has looked to diversify as it and other beverage companies face a worldwide decline in soft-drink tastes. With some consumers trading in soft drinks for carbonated water tinged with flavors, firms have scrambled to uncover the next health-conscious drink. Last year, Coca-Cola acquired Topo Chico, the popular Mexican sparkling water, in an apparent move to challenge La Croix’s grip on the market.

The move is also in line with directives from Coca-Cola chief executive James Quincey to focus on creative ideas. Last year, the company launched 500 products worldwide, the Financial Times reported. “We’re making innovations in Coke, innovations with flavors, innovations with ingredients all around the world … taking it into different categories than it was in before,” Quincey told industry leaders last month.

In Japan, the new venture means taking on established chu-hi brands like Highball Lemon, Slat and Strong Zero.

Chu-hi has roots in 1940s eastern Tokyo, according to Sangaria USA, a company that imports hard-to-get Japanese products. The original concoction was shochu (a common Japanese, vodka-like spirit made from potatoes, rice, barley or sugar), carbonated water and a hint of lemon juice, the company says. The modern drink is sold all over Japan.

The market for shochu itself has ballooned 40 percent in Japan since 2011, the Financial Times reported.

“We haven’t experimented in the low-alcohol category before,” Garduño said in the website post. In fact, the company has advertised itself as an alternative to alcohol. An ad from the early 1900s explained that Coke was aimed at “business men” and young men, specifically.

“In this connection Coca-Cola admirably fills the universal American demand for a strictly temperance beverage,” a 1906 advertisement read, “which is at once delicious, refreshing and absolutely harmless; and which stands for those truly American traits — healthy activity of mind and body!” (Soft drinks have since been linked to higher risk of stroke and dementia, among other ailments.)


A Coca-Cola advertisement from 1906. (Courtesy of Coca-Cola Journey)

Coca-Cola spokesman Scott Leith told The Washington Post on Wednesday that he did not have information about a potential launch date. He described the move as only the second time the company has worked with alcohol in its products. It owned Wine Spectrum from 1977 to 1983, when it was sold to Seagram & Sons, Leith said.

The news is likely the first time many people outside Japan have heard of chu-hi, and possibly even shochu, which is why Garduño cautioned about expecting the drink to hit shelves in other countries.

“It makes sense to give this a try in our market,” he said in the company interview. “While many markets are becoming more like Japan, I think the culture here is still very unique and special, so many products that are born here will stay here.”

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