Japanese whisky: Big fish, bigger pond

15 January, 2013

Image: Shutterstock

Indeed, argues Peric, Suntory is at an altogether higher platform than the young pretenders.

“Because we have been in the global market for several years we have progressed from just talking to whisky connoisseurs, who now know the brands well,” he says. “There are lots of other premium whisky drinkers who do not know Suntory whiskies and who we now want to reach. By contrast the likes of Amrut and Kavalan are at a much earlier stage of market penetration.”

Forces of nature

Marcin Miller, managing director of Japanese whisky importer Number One Drinks Company, agrees, although he does acknowledge that the earthquake and tsunami did create a blip in the rise and rise of Japanese whisky.   

“I’m pretty sure that Indian and Taiwanese whisky won’t sound the death knell for Japanese whisky any more than radio killed off the newspaper, or television meant the end of radio,” he says. 

“They are not a straightforward replacement, merely another avenue for the enthusiast to explore. Rather, does the arrival of whisky from India and Taiwan – to say nothing of the explosion of micro-distilleries all around the world – suggest that Japanese whisky is now mainstream? Certainly that would appear to be the case with listings for Japanese whisky in supermarkets and in travel retail. 

“Any slow-down in sales we’ve experienced has been due to factors other than the availability of other ‘new world’ whiskies. Because of recent lack of availability, visitors to Whisky Live Paris and The Whisky Show in London have been going mad for Karuizawa and Chichibu – it’s like a post-rationing frenzy.

“Unlike the more mainstream products of big distillers, our whiskies are not likely to be purchased by the casual consumer. The more committed whisky enthusiast is intelligent enough to have made up his own mind and not fall prey to scaremongering. 

“The disasters affected Number One Drinks in that we were unable to export to European Union  markets for a long while – thankfully, we were in a position to fulfil Taiwanese orders (our biggest market) – but any minor commercial impact on my business is totally irrelevant in view of the suffering and loss of those whose lives were ruined by the tsunami.” 

Miller says demand for Japanese whisky hasn’t reached its limit yet, and it is coming from even further afield – or arguably nearer if you’re looking at the world from Tokyo. “France is huge for us,” he says, “but we have a constant request for whisky from Taiwan. I could easily put everything I have into Taiwan and it wouldn’t scratch the surface. It is a massive market.” The collective view, then, is that Japanese whisky hasn’t been in the public eye so much because much of it has been sold and there has been little need to invest in marketing and advertising when demand is already so high.

The demand-supply imbalance has had another effects, too – prices have risen sharply. Nikka has disassociated itself from price hikes, claiming not to have stock issues or to have put up its prices beyond exchange rate variations. But Suntory’s whiskies have gone up in price considerably and that, coupled with some rare whisky exported by the Number One Drinks Company, has created a high-end super-premium Japanese whisky category.

It all makes total sense at the rare higher end of the market, but why is there so little younger Japanese whisky available too? 

Predicting demand

There are three main reasons: the surge in demand and the need to spread more thinly; because younger stock has been held back to make more older stock; and because of fashion trends back in Japan.

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