Japanese whisky: Big fish, bigger pond

15 January, 2013

Image: Shutterstock

“As with all whiskies we must try to predict demand many decades ahead,” says Suntory’s Peric. “Prices have had to rise because of a shortage of supply. Yamazaki 10 Year Old single malt was discontinued entirely last year so that maturing whiskies could be reserved for other age-statement single malts in the future.”

But it’s the third of the three reasons which indicates most strongly what a good place Japanese whisky finds itself in. A craze among the fashion set in Tokyo for the Highball – a long drink normally made with soda water and embellished with ice – has seen the demand for younger expressions of Japanese whisky soar within Japan itself, so much so that one industry insider divulged that stocks were being recalled from Europe.

Rather than stalling then, Japanese whisky producers are metaphorically drawing breath, reloading and preparing for a fresh onslaught of world markets in due course. With extremely rare whiskies keeping the aficionados happy at one end of the market and more stock coming on line at the other, Japanese whisky is well locked into the future. The country’s newest distillery – Chichibu – has just started bottling three-year-old malt and year by year greater stocks will become available. 

Miller of the Number One Drinks Company even goes so far as to say that, rather than hinder or in any way damage Japanese whiskies, the new players from the likes of India and Taiwan will replace them in the ‘curiosity shop’ category and Japanese whiskies will become increasingly considered as mainstream and ‘old school’ alongside Scotland, Ireland, Canada and Kentucky.

“As awareness and appreciation of Japanese whisky increases, I think it is reasonable to think of it as part of the ‘old world’, to borrow 1980s wine terminology,” he says. 

“Although it doesn’t have quite the heritage of Scotch, Irish and American whiskies, the Japanese have been distilling since 1923. Or perhaps it forms a bridge from the old world to the new, by which I mean the wave of distilleries from Australia to Sweden. 

“No longer will Japanese whisky become an oddity, a surprise in a blind tasting. That means distillers will need to keep standards as high as possible. I expect more Japanese whisky to enter the US market soon and have great success there.”

Suntory has just issued a range of different cask finished single malts, Nikka’s leading whiskies go from strength to strength, and Miller is about to launch just 41 bottles of what is believed to be Japan’s oldest ever whisky, a Karuizawa from 1960. All three companies confidently state that the only reason they’re not growing their sector faster is because they can’t.

Only a fool would contradict them. The Japanese phenomenon looks set to run and run.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


Nick Strangeway

The effects of Covid-19 on 50 Best Bars

The World’s 50 Best Bars reflects travel restrictions and spotlights neighbourhood bars, says Nick Strangeway.