It’s all but impossible to pinpoint exactly when Japanese whisky turned from being an ugly duckling into a glorious whisky swan – but a wet and windy Wednesday afternoon at a whisky shop in Norwich, England, about a decade ago is as good a date as any.
Back then Japanese single malt was enigmatic but not much loved. No samples were available for curious customers to try, and the relatively hefty price tag ensured that the vast majority of visitors to the shop steered well clear and aged bottles were left gathering dust on many a shelf.
But on that Wednesday afternoon a man entered the shop in Norwich and asked how many bottles of Yamazaki 18 Year Old it had. He took all four, paying £75 for each of them.
That was good business for a small shop on a wet Wednesday and the staff were pleased with themselves. That’s until about an hour later, when the phone rang and a person from head office instructed them to double the price of Yamazaki 18 Year Old to £150 with immediate effect.
We’ll never know whether that incident was the result of a remarkable coincidence or whether the purchaser knew something nobody else did, but you could say that moment symbolically marked the point when Japanese began its stellar rise in popularity, with demand constantly outstripping supply, and the ever-escalating price tags unable to calm an insatiable thirst for the whiskies produced by the likes of Suntory, Nikka and Chichibu.
Meanwhile rare whiskies from closed distilleries such as Karuizawa and Hanyu have come to epitomise the term ‘collectors’ items’, their prices rising rapidly in to the tens of thousands of pounds. Buoyed by a perfect storm of outstanding reviews, rock-solid investment potential, a favourable zeitgeist, a passion for all things Japanese and extreme rarity, the sector has taken on an almost mythological status.
“Interest in Japanese whisky has been so avid that a misconception has arisen that anything Japanese is top notch,” says Number One Drinks Company’s Marcin Miller. “Sadly, this isn’t always the case. And this may result in some disappointed consumers.”
Japanese whisky is dominated by two companies: Suntory, which is by far and away the biggest producer, and Nikka. In export markets they dominate the category, with small and independent distiller Chichibu occupying a special niche status in the same way as Scottish distiller Kilchoman does. There are a smattering of other distillers in Japan, but their export status has traditionally been patchy. That may be set to change, however.
The demand for pretty much anything from Nikka and Suntory has become so great that both companies have taken steps to preserve their future. Nikka in particular was facing the realistic prospect of running out of whisky and has launched two ‘non-age statement’ whiskies – whiskies with no minimum age on the label. These are presumably bottled at a younger age, to bring them to market more quickly than waiting 10 or 12 years. That has provided a partial solution to the supply issue, but Nikka warns that shortages could persist for another decade.