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Japanese distillers pumping out high-proof alcohol solutions to meet sanitizer demand

A bottle of Spirits 80 high-proof alcohol solution. (Image courtesy of MCG, a gin maker in Miyagi Prefecture)
A bottle of Toyama Prefecture sake brewer Wakatsuru's 77% alcohol spirit. (Image courtesy of Wakatsuru)

TOKYO -- Japan's distillers and major beverage makers are starting to churn out high-proof alcohol offerings amid a national shortage of conventional alcohol-based sanitizers triggered by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The surge in demand comes after the government relaxed regulations, paving the way for the spirits to be used as disinfectant at medical facilities and by the general public. However, there have already been cases of people reselling bottles of the strong stuff on the internet at inflated prices, something the National Tax Agency (NTA) is warning "could be a violation of the Liquor Tax Act."

Nanbu Bijin, a distiller in the city if Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan, will begin selling a 77% alcohol spirit on April 28, followed by a 65% offering. It is scheduled to ship about 10,000 bottles in total to local hospitals and other facilities. Company president Kosuke Kuji told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I learned that hospitals were having trouble with sanitizer shortages, and I wanted to help."

The health ministry informed medical and other institutions on April 10 that they would be allowed to use solutions of 70-83% alcohol as disinfectants due to the deepening sanitizer shortfall. Then on April 22, the ministry said facilities could use solutions in the 60% range if they could not obtain 70%-plus products. Furthermore, the NTA has simplified the application process for the license to make high-proof spirits. All these are special measures to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

After these changes went through, large alcoholic beverage makers moved to start producing disinfectants in addition to regional sake breweries. Suntory Holdings Ltd. subsidiary Suntory Spirits will begin providing distilled high-proof alcohol solutions from its Osaka factory to medical and other institutions free of charge in late April.

Meanwhile, sake makers and other businesses are being swamped with orders from regular consumers for high-alcohol solutions. According to sales company Liquor Innovation, based in Tokyo's Taito Ward, it sold out of a 77% alcohol solution made by a Hyogo Prefecture brewer almost the moment it was put on the market on April 17.

However, these types of alcohols are also being resold on the open market or on auction sites, some at as much as four times their original price.

Anyone selling alcoholic beverages must obtain a license under the Liquor Tax Act, and people "who sell large quantities, even one at a time, could be running afoul of the law," an NTA representative said. If convicted, violators face a sentence of up to a year in prison or a fine of as much as 500,000 yen. The NTA has posted a warning to those reselling such beverages, including e-commerce site operators, on its official website.

(Japanese original by Yuki Machino, Business News Department)

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