The Japanese whisky has become the most expensive ever sold at auction.
As we headed to Yamazaki last week, my trusty companion could barely contain his excitement. Not just at finally visiting the place, but about what (in his mind) would be the treasures on offer in the distillery shop. Plans were afoot for buying a case full of exclusives, and a haul of Hibikis.
I tried to calm him down as gently as I could, but nothing I said would dent his belief that this would be the mother lode. He had a yen for Yamazaki, you could say. Then he arrived. The whisky offering was, er, scant. There was a better selection in the bottle shops in Kyoto – and their shelves were pretty much empty.
The best bet for finding old whiskies in Japan these days would involve heading into the countryside and hoping to find the Japanese equivalent of a ‘mom and pop’ store. Alternatively, whisky lovers are now haunting estate sales in the hope that there might be a collection up for sale.
The stock shortage shows little signs of easing in the short term. The liquid is dwindling, and what’s left is being managed as best it can. Last year, Suntory announced a further cull of brands, including a large size of its (and Japan’s) top-selling brand Kakubin, while Nikka is about to follow suit, with its Nikka 12 being replaced by Tailored and, more worryingly, a ‘temporary suspension’ of its Coffey Malt and Grain. The third major brand, Kirin Gotemba, is about to drop its Fujisanroku Tarujuku 50˚. The cupboard, it would seem, is bare.
New era: Yamazaki may have been the first, but today Japan boasts 23 operational distilleries
At the start of the millennium, Japanese whisky was the newest, brightest star in whisky’s constellation. Now, within 20 years, it seems to have imploded.
It was with this in mind that we pushed open the door of Zoetrope in Tokyo. Established by Horigami-san a decade ago in Shinjuku, with the intention of specialising in ‘Western-style Japanese-distilled spirits’, this is where you go to take the pulse of the industry. We began chatting about what was new, what had gone.
‘There’s this…’ he said, putting two small bottles in front of me. Both were from Kanosuke distillery in Kagoshima Prefecture, which opened last year. One, New Pot, was a limited release of new make spirit; the second, New Born, an eight-month-old aged in American oak ex-shochu casks (the beachfront distillery is owned by shochu producer Komasa Jyoza). Rather good they were too – the New Born especially shows real promise.
Then there followed new releases from Mars Tsunuki (also in Kagoshima), while on the bar top stood bottles from Hokkaido’s excellent (and smoky) Akkeshi.
The comments of one senior exec earlier in the week came back to me. ‘We have a lot of whisky,’ he had said, ‘it’s just that it’s not ready yet.’
Rather than dwell on what has gone, maybe it is time to look at what is on the way. Japan now has 23 operational whisky distilleries – most small, nearly all new.
The past year has seen bottled statements of intent from the multifunctional Shizuoka distillery (where the Karuizawa stills now nestle), Nagahama, Akasa and the crowd-funded Wakatsuru Saburomaru.
While there’s still plenty of imported whisky (Scotch, but increasingly Canadian) being blended or simply relabelled as ‘Japanese whisky’, and the practise of relabelling aged/coloured rice shochu as ‘whisky’ continues, there does seem to be the start of a rebalancing.
Even the obscure Matsui Shuzo (where a considerable amount of ersatz ‘Japanese’ whisky came from) appears to have turned over a new leaf and is releasing what seems to be 100% Japanese-distilled wares.
New spirit: Kanosuke distillery opened in Kagoshima Prefecture in 2018
Is Japanese whisky rebooting itself? Maybe come 2024 – the centenary of the first whisky distillation taking place – we will see Japanese whisky 3.0 emerge (2.0 was the radical shift in approach after the bulk-oriented low-strength days of the 1960s/70s whisky boom).
By then, the landscape will have changed dramatically. The newest players will have mature examples while, if all plans are approved, there will be more distilleries coming into production.
We will have a second distillery at Chichibu, while Kirin’s Gotemba expansion, which will see capacity increased by 20%, will have been running for three years. The current increase in production (and capacity) at the other established distilleries will by then have resulted in some easing of stock restrictions.
Maybe a reboot isn’t the right term. Japanese whisky has always reflected the concept of kaizen (continual incremental improvement). This is just the latest manifestation of that approach.
The question is: what will the rest of the whisky world be like by then? Japan is hardly alone in building new distilleries; the memories of the old days will have gone and a new set of consumers will have emerged.
However, the latest stage in Japanese whisky’s evolution isn’t as simple as waiting for stock to mature. It means looking at what a future market might want, what other countries are producing, finding points of difference, while still reinforcing Japanese identity.
Nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed. There are many more stars in the constellation. Japan won’t return as the new kid on the block, but will have to fight its way back. Its plans for the future start now.
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