Drinking Clearly

09.13.14 11:37 AM ET

In Japan, Zima Haz No Zexual Preference

The “malternative” liquor may be off the market in the U.S.A., but it’s thriving in Japan

Out of all the abominations created in the “clear drink” craze of the 1990s, nothing emerged as a bigger joke than Zima, a fizzy alcoholic beverage that tasted faintly like Sprite. Originally touted as “Zomething Different,” a clear alternative to beer but also a malt liquor, Zima was touted with a cheesy marketing campaign featuring a smooth-talking male who replaced his S’s with Z’s. 

At first the self-proclaimed “malternative” was a commercial success. It sold 1.3 million barrels in 1994, the year it came out. But it quickly became a text-book case of marketing gone awry. It developed a “girly” reputation. No “real man” wanted to be caught chugging Zima. And profit-wise, that’s bad news. Men of any stripe drink a whole lot more than women.

Zima was one of the first “alcopops” to hit the market: a category for sweetened alcoholic beverages usually sold in bottles or cans that resemble soda. Over time, because of its popularity among young girls, it became the object of ridicule. Saturday Night Live had skits that showed a married man trying to seduce the babysitter with Zima, or a teenager offering Zima to her friends at a party. Thomas Pynchon was still making fun of it last year in his novel Bleeding Edge. But in the United States, finally, Coors pulled the drink off the shelves completely in 2008. 

Not so in Japan! Indeed, Zima is alive – very much alive – almost anywhere you look in Tokyo. It’s a staple at bars. Convenience stores stock ample quantities. And you might say Zima has been liberated. It’s not a beer “alternative,” it is what it is, and utterly unashamed about gender identification.

Romano Machiste (his real name), has been selling the drink in his Ibex bar in Tokyo’s Roppongi district since he opened 11 years go. “A lot of Japanese people, especially females, like Zima,” said Machiste. But it takes all kinds. Hiro Sugisaki, who looks like a bouncer and is something of a local tough-guy legend, owns a popular bar called Propaganda that sells quantities of Zima. “I even like to drink it myself. It goes down easy,” says Hiro. Sometimes Americans visiting here buy it as a gift for their friends in America.”

For all the talk of gender bias, Zima’s drinking demographic in Japan is the very group that shunned it in the United States: males in their 20s.

Go to any district with a vibrant nightlife such as Shibuya or Roppongi and many of the bars in the area have Zima stocked in fridges behind the bar. It can be found in the alcohol section of most convenience stores — right next to rival Smirnoff Ice, another clear, citrus-flavored abomination. Last year Molson Coors Japan sold over a million cases — 24 million bottles — of Zima. 

This summer in a pop-up “beach town” there was even a special Zima bar where customers could slurp frozen Zima under a water-filled glass ceiling. The company launched a campaign this year titled “Love Simple” that includes a commercial starring Ryuhei Matsuda, a scruffy, macho male actor. 

“In Japan it’s not embarrassing at all to be caught drinking Zima,” says Kayoko Okochi, a brand manager from the company’s marketing department. 

The country got its first taste of the stuff 17 years ago when the drink—along with the same cool commercials that aired on American television—was imported from the United States. Back then the Western lifestyle was in fashion and anything American was deemed cool. The company decided to use what Okochi calls “guerrilla marketing.” Bars served it on flashing coasters; “Zima girls” wearing sexy costumes promoted it in nightclubs.  Soon enough the young crowd began to notice the drink that has now become a staple. At ageHa, Tokyo’s biggest nightclub, Zima is heavily promoted even now

“Drinking habits are changing in Japan,” says Okochi. “People are no longer forced to chug beers if they don’t want to.” In the old days it was almost mandatory for company employees to go together to an izakaya, a Japanese-style pub, after a first round of bitter-tasting beers, and then more and more, everyone dragged themselves into the office tired and hung over the next morning. But these days younger people—raised on a diet of sweet juices and soft drinks—are more willing to speak up and say, “No, I think I’ll have a grapefruit sour or soda instead.” In Japan, at least, Zima truly is an alternative for those who can’t stand the bitter taste of beer. 

But the hard truth about the booze biz is that if you want to sell a lot of the stuff, you’ve got to target men, because they drink so much more than women. “Naturally if men drink our drink, more bottles will be consumed,” says Okuchi. “Women usually only drink one or two bottles.” 

The male-centric marketing may have overcompensated, however. 

“We targeted the normal Zima to men so much that it became too popular among men,” admitted Okochi. “The masculine image of Zima in Japan became too strong. Compared to similar brands such as Smirnoff Ice, Zima had less female drinkers.”

The company’s solution to the gender gap was to launch Zima Pink, which is flavored with Japanese cherries, but for some reason has a slight aftertaste reminiscent of cough syrup. While the flavor is nowhere near as popular as the original, 10 percent of the one million cases of Zima sold each year are pink. For a short time there was Zima Gold, which was slightly amber and almost had bourbon like taste to it — for the manly Zima man. It is now off the market. 

Is it possible that Zima might even make a comeback in the U.S.A, perhaps as some sort of exotic import? There is  a Facebook page celebrating it and a small movement to bring it back to American shores. At least one American who came to visit the Zima Bar this summer said, with no sense of irony, “This is really good stuff. Japan makes the best drinks ever.” 

But if you really have a yen for Zima without enough yen to go to Japan, you can try to make it yourself—that would be zomething else, indeed.