Going underground

19 February, 2016

After several years of top awards, critical acclaim and buoyant sales, Japanese whisky seems to have become a victim of its own success. Dominic Roskrow asks what’s happening next

When Japanese whisky company Nikka announced it was discontinuing all its age statement whiskies and replacing them with just two expressions, both without an age on the label, the collective groan from the rest of the whisky industry was practically palpable.

For years the main producers of Japanese whisky – Suntory and Nikka – have been wrongly and unfairly accused of trying to copy a scotch whisky blueprint. And here was another example, said critics, and an unfortunate one, because having established a reputation for outstanding quality, Nikka was heading down the route of offering younger, inferior malt whisky at an eye-wateringly high price.

On this occasion, however, the critics couldn’t have been more wrong. Leaving aside the misguided view that Japanese whisky is little more than scotch lite, Nikka’s decision to go down the non-age statement route was for a reason far removed from the exploitation and greedy motives of at least some scotch whisky producers.

In the first place, Nikka has a history of producing high-quality whiskies without age statements and bringing them to the market at accessible price points. And a taste of the two new single malts, one from each of the company’s two distilleries, provided ample evidence that there was to be no dumbing down this time, either.

But the releases were launched with a frank and stark statement from the company itself: it was necessary to discontinue the age statement expressions, it said, because if it didn’t it would run out of stock and be forced to shut its doors.

Never has the expression ‘victim of its own success’ been more pointed or telling. Nikka’s buoyant sales had crippled it, and with Suntory’s whiskies becoming increasingly hard to find, and the price of both companies’ top-end expressions spiralling out of control, it might seem the brief golden age for Japanese whisky has come to an abrupt halt.

So is this the beginning of the end for Japanese whisky’s reign at the top of the spirits world?


Many commentators date the recent fascination with Japanese whisky back to the start of the millennium, when Japanese whiskies picked up a couple of top awards in the west, and English whisky writers started to take notice of them. According to Tokyo-based travel and hospitality writer Nicholas Coldicott, though, 2001 was something of a false dawn.

“People talk about 2001 because it was the first time a Japanese whisky won a major international award, but for years after that there was barely a twinkle of interest,” he says.  “In 2008 you could stroll into a liquor store and find a selection of Ichiro’s Malt card series bottles for ¥10,000-15,000 each. And they weren’t selling fast. I should have bought the lot.

“So it was more a slow trickle and then a tidal wave. There were a lot of people promoting Japanese whisky before it became fashionable. Atsushi Horigami was running the Zoetrope bar, the Number One Drinks people were giving away bottles of whisky from the Karuizawa distillery, and Ichiro Akuto was releasing his card series bottles. All that helped people with an interest in whisky see the quality of the local product.”

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