To say that the Japanese whisky industry has had an interesting few decades would be the understatement of the century. It’s rather like saying The Dalmore’s finest can be ‘quite expensive’, or that the Scottish are ‘rather fond’ of a wee dram or two.
Cast your mind back just twenty or thirty years, and you’ll remember that the vast majority of even the most dedicated whisky lovers probably weren’t aware that the land of rising sun was involved in whisky production. Back then, Japanese whisky still hadn’t make its mark on the international scene, and the bottles which had broken free of the far east didn’t exactly make much of an impact anyway. The domestic Japanese whisky industry might have been thriving, but even over there, it wasn’t considered anything particularly special.
However, things changed… and they changed fast. The decades that followed saw Japanese fine whisky producers seriously up their game. They returned to their Scotch single malt sources of inspiration. They emphasized their use of quality ingredients, small-batch production methods, and the beauty and clarity of their mountain water. They aimed high, and it paid off in ways the distillers and the industry as a whole couldn’t have imagined possible. Suddenly, Japanese whisky was big news all across the globe.
International award followed international award. Medals were handed out with alarming frequency. Pop culture references to Japanese whisky starting appearing all over the place, from hip hop videos to the iconic Sofia Coppola movie ‘Lost In Translation’, which single-handedly boosted the sale of one particular Japanese whisky brand further than ever before. Japan’s newest and coolest spirit was being hailed as the finest in the world, and sales skyrocketed. All was good… until the Spring of 2018.
Victims of Success
Whispers regarding the exhaustion of Japan’s aged whisky stocks had been circulating for at least a year before the news of a crisis was confirmed. However, many of the more cynical members of the whisky drinking community felt it couldn’t be as serious as some were claiming, and that it was more likely to be a sly marketing ploy designed to get people panic-buying than a real issue. After all, surely such enthusiasm and worldwide devotion to Japanese whisky had led to the distillers upping their production volumes to cope with demand?
Well, yes and no. There’s no doubt that whisky distillers in Japan most certainly did increase their production volumes to cope with demand. The problem is, whisky – and especially the fine, aged, high-end whisky that Japan is so rightly hailed for – takes a long, long time to make and mature. Therein lies the crux of this problem: the whiskies which are in such great demand today, and which have become the definitive victim of their success, are those which were barrelled back in the old days we mentioned at the start of this blog; you know, the days when Japanese whisky was only just starting to find its feet. As we stated, the Japanese really didn’t know just how popular their spirits were about to become, and as such, didn’t bother making world-beating quantities of the stuff. The result? Empty cellars, empty shelves, and meteoric price rises being slapped on the few remaining bottles.
An Opportunity in Disguise?
Naturally, this crisis has only really hit the most popular and renowned bottles of Japanese whisky. As such, it has lead many people to question whether this so-called ‘disaster’ is actually just a disaster for the biggest brands, and might in fact be a boon in disguise for some of the underdogs of the Japanese whisky scene. Indeed, there’s little doubt that Japanese whisky lovers will definitely start shopping around for more affordable alternatives (especially now their favourites have entered unicorn status), and this might end up yielding some highly interesting results.
So, which whisky brands have been hit the hardest by this crisis? They’ve mainly been those championed by Suntory – the impressive behemoth of the Japanese whisky scene. Their lines include Yamazaki, who were showered with awards in 2013 and whose 50 year old bottle of whisky smashed Japanese records by selling for $300,000 in January of this year. As well as this, their supplies of Hibiki and Hakushu have also all but dried up, with many successful outlets being limited to 10-12 bottles per day (which are reported as being snapped up by thirsty consumers and keen investors within an hour of going on display).
What the future holds
Of course, this crisis isn’t set to be a permanent one. Japanese distillers have been busily getting to work on producing new batches of premium whisky, but they’re claiming that the earliest they will be ready for sale is 2021… and three years is actually quite a long time in such a fast-moving industry.
Will the interest and enthusiasm for Japanese whisky be the same in three year’s time? With countries like Taiwan and others very much on the rise when it comes to artisanal fine whisky, it’s perfectly possible that by the time the new batches of Japanese whisky arrive, its fans will have moved on. What’s more, there’s real concern that distillers won’t have much whisky prepared for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which would have been the perfect opportunity to show off the country’s produce to an attentive global audience.
Despite these concerns, Japan is a country which is full of surprises, and which is typified by an industrious and innovative attitude to pretty much everything they do. It’s likely the land of the rising sun has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, and we’re sure to be impressed with whatever comes of this temporary crisis. In the meantime, we’ll be doing all we can to make sure our final bottles of Yamazaki last a little bit longer…