Going underground

19 February, 2016

This is a view shared by Stefan Van Eycken, editor of Japanese website Nonjatta and an eye witness to the country’s whisky boom.

“Hardly anyone in Japan was interested in Karuizawa whiskies when they were in plentiful supply,” he says. “You could even mail-order a bottle of your preferred vintage directly from the distillery, which the staff would tap from the cask, stick a label on and send to you. It wasn’t until people abroad were starting to drop sums on them previously reserved for old Macallans that whisky fans in Japan were starting to get out their wallets. The irony is that – at that point – it was already too late for whisky fans in Japan to follow suit, as the stock had been bought up by Number One Drinks and largely split between the three foreign distributors involved.

“Until five years ago, you could pick up a single cask Hakushu or Yamazaki any day of the week. A major Japanese electronics store – with branches all over the country – had a dozen or more different single casks available at any of their outlets. They had them for years and years… Now people would camp in front of the store if they knew a single cask bottling was coming out.”

Coldicott says the main driving factor was Suntory’s decision to promote the Highball – a mixture of whisky and sparkling water in a high glass and with a stylish ice ball – to a trendy, younger audience, bringing Japanese whisky back into favour in fashionable city bars.

DRAMA AND INTENSITY

When the flood came, though, it did so with a drama and intensity that has rarely been seen in the drinks industry. It started with the price of old and rare bottlings quite literally doubling overnight. And it seems to have ended with a Suntory whisky being picked as the world’s best whisky by the influential Whisky Bible, and the company’s marketing people having to buy shots of it from a London fashion bar because they didn’t have any stock to give to national newspaper writers keen to find out what the fuss was all about.

The whiskies have created the perfect storm by maxing out on the three key demand generators: people want to drink them, people want to collect them, and people want to invest in them. It means Japanese whisky has become extremely hard to get hold of in many territories, and even ‘standard’ bottles are commanding high prices.

A strong ‘secondary market’ at auction and through private sales has grown up, and the rarest whiskies from distilleries such as Karuizawa and Hanyu command prices which run into thousands of pounds and stand comparison with the  very rarest Scottish single malts.

What stock that does become available is snapped up, irrespective of price. Just this February, for instance, Suntory released 2,000 bottles of Yamazaki Sherry Cask at £200 a bottle. It barely touched the shelves.

Van Eycken says such a situation is unsustainable. “Obviously, producers will charge what the market will bear,” he says. “There are enough people now willing to part with their hard-earned cash to get their mitts on a bottle that ‘everybody wants’, but there’s a limit not to how far people are willing to go, that much is clear from auctions, but to how far they can go… given the fact that the credit card bill has to be paid at some point.





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Nick Strangeway

Bar food's blurred lines

Once upon a time pubs and bars were somewhere you went with the sole purpose of getting pissed and there wasn’t a knife and fork in sight, just a packet of dry roasted nuts.

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