Marussia Beverages, an international producer and distributor of premium wines, sake and spirits, has expanded its portfolio through both acquisitions and brand creations. It purchased a distillery in Russia in 2019, and added a newly created brand, 135°EAST, to its Japanese spirits lineup this year. We spoke to Marc Torterat, Marketing Director of Marussia Beverages, about the company’s development plans.
You launched the super-premium Russian vodka brand Mamont in 2008 and acquired a controlling stake in its distillery in 2019, with the ambition of doubling the brand’s share in Russia and launching two new premium vodka brands. Where are you in these developments?
With the acquisition of the Itkulsky distillery in 2019, we now have our own distillery, along our own distribution company in Russia. Mamont is seeing annual growth of 30%, and is the second-biggest vodka brand in Russia after Beluga in the super-premium segment. Our market share is close to 6% and we have set ourselves the ambitious target of doubling this to reach 12%.
There are three growth drivers for the brand: expanding distribution, brand activations (with our Mamont CAMP program that organizes annual excursions in different regions of Russia) and new product development and line extensions. This month, we are launching Mamont IVORY, an organic vodka, and are also looking at the possibility of launching smaller formats.
Aside from developing Mamont, we have a new national Russian vodka brand in the pipeline for next year. We will also look to create a second vodka brand, probably in 2022, which will be focused on international markets.
Your Japanese portfolio consists of 135°EAST gin, Hatozaki whisky and Akashi-Tai sake. What are your biggest markets?
We export more than we sell locally; in Japan our distribution is very regional. Across the three brands, export accounts for more than 90% of our sales.
Our largest market for whisky is the US, and the UK leads the way for sake. While France is currently our biggest market for gin—we launched there in February ahead of the UK—the US and the UK are expected to overtake France as our biggest markets within two to four years.
Talk us through some of your recent investments, which include creating 135°EAST and expanding your Kaikyo Distillery.
We created 135°EAST last year; it launched in Europe in February and is currently rolling out in the US. 135°EAST is an artisanal gin, handcrafted in small batches at our Kaikyo Distillery. It combines three classic London Dry Gin ingredients with five Japanese botanicals, to which is added a dash of distilled Junmai Daiginjo sake. The distillation process borrows from the world of luxury perfumes; vacuum distillation is used to preserve the delicate and volatile flavors, with the alcohol extracted at very low temperatures.
We also expanded the Kaikyo Distillery this year with new storage and distillation capacities. Our aim is to produce 250,000 bottles (gin and whisky combined) per year to meet demand. Previously, production stood at barely 50,000 bottles of whisky. Our sake is crafted at Akashi Sake Brewery in the same Japanese port city of Akashi.
You’ve seen an uptick in sales after revamping the packaging for Akashi-Tai sake.
Yes, we decided to revamp the packaging to better address Western consumers. This was done two years ago, and in 2019 we saw an increase of +20% in sales compared to 2018 figures. There are two important points when it comes to packaging for Western consumers: the structure of the information and readability.
Many sakes have labeling in Japanese so we reworked the label to make it easier to understand and introduced more English (mostly on the back label but also on the front). The bottle showcases calligraphy by the Japanese artist Hirano Sogen, and the brand icon, a sea bream (or “Tai” in Japanese), takes more importance on the pack. The label and cap on each sake are color-coded, which makes it easier for consumers to identify each product—our hero reference in the range is Junmai Daiginjo.
The bottle has the typical sake 72cl format. We considered creating a specific bottle for export, but our brewery in Japan is steeped in tradition and we wanted to retain this image. The brand's packaging is made in Japan; the bottle by Ishizuka Glass Co., Ltd, the cap by Kita Sangyo Co., Ltd and the label by Osaka Sealing Printing Co., Ltd. We do not currently use secondary packaging for Akashi-Tai, but this is something we are considering.
What are your development plans? Has your business been impacted by covid-19?
On a group level, Marussia Beverages has made a number of acquisitions over the past few years, and 2021 and 2022 will be dedicated to consolidating these as well as expanding our existing portfolio, especially Mamont, Hatozaki and liqueur brand Mozart.
It’s too early to see the impact of the health crisis. We have been slightly affected year-to-date, but our portfolio is mainly premium and super premium and looking at the dynamics behind several brand/market pairings such as Hatozaki in the US or Mamont in Russia, we remain reasonably optimistic. Sales are very seasonal and end-of-year is typically an important period for us in terms of revenue.