Firstly, apologies if any one reads this with the expectation that I have all the answers to question posed in the title. The current state of play with Japanese whiskey does however beg the question to be asked.
Back to the beginning, well not back to the beginning of when the Japanese starting producing commercial quantities of whiskey back in the early 1920′s, but the beginning of the phenomenon that has taken Japanese Whisky from zero to hero in by my calculations, about 7-8 years. Why about 7-8 years, this was the time when a well know UK liquor retailer was selling the Karuizawa 1971(2008). This Japanese whisky, at least in sample form, was reviewed by a very influential whisky blogger who is also famous for being a huge fan of this distillery. I will add that the very same UK liquor retailer uses this whisky blogger to promote their Japanese whisky, so are well aware of said influence(though I’m sure they are not the only ones).
Now there will be at least one professional whisky writer and more than likely a few others who will claim they were extolling the virtues of Japanese whisky before this time, which they were, but I have no doubt that before 7-8 years ago, Japanese whisky was still largely viewed as a novelty. Also from memory, that Karuizawa 1971 was only sold for somewhere between GBP90-110(I can never quite remember as being from Australia we could order it without VAT so it was cheaper than if you lived in the UK). That price point is significant, we are not talking about 1988 but 2008, only 7-8 years ago. We know what they sell for on the resale market but we also know that if it was a retail release today, it would be hard to believe a 1971 Karuizawa would sell for less that GBP1000. The novelty value of Japanese whisky extended back to Japan itself. Forget about the cheap blends used for highballs which have been around since day one of Japanese whisky production, when I first travelled to Japan which was within the time frame mentioned, I saw bottles of Ichiro’s Malt the Game 1st Version for Y6900. At the time that was about USD$69. I gave some thought to grabbing a bottle but decided on some other stuff. Back then Karuizawa was still distilling and you could buy their OB 12, 15 and 17 year olds from liquor stores. Anyway back to that bottle of Ichiro’s Malt, I went back to Japan 6 months later and at that same store the bottles were still sitting there(try and picture that happening these days) and I grabbed one. Now this was a single cask 9YO distilled in the year 2000. Now your looking at Euro1500 for one of these on the resale market. Of course with 20-20 hindsight I should have bought them all : ). I can also tell you that in Japan up until about 4 maybe 5 years ago, there was not a single bottle of Karuizawa or Hanyu for that matter that was selling for more that Y20000 so about US$200 at the time. Here is a link to Ichiro’s Akuto’s Venture Whisky site from about 7 years ago. www.iiosake.com/venturewhisky-card.html and hit the translate button. Trust me it’s ok to cry a little, actually a lot, when you see the original prices if you are not familiar. These days if you want to buy this stuff and really I’m going to include any rare non standard offering from any Japanese distillery you only have a few choices.
a) Pay what’s being asked for and gotten on the resale market. Average Joe’s need not apply at those prices.
b) Get email notifications of upcoming releases from the few retailers that control this market. Then set your calendar and hit the go button as soon as they appear online. Of course wait for the page to time out ‘cuz every other man/woman and their dog are trying to buy them at the same time because they know the prices will double as soon as they are gone. Actually I take that back, it’s more like triple.
c) Be on great terms someone who works for or owns the store that controls this market. In Japan something like Ichiro’s Malt The Joker(as an example), will not make it onto the retail shelf or online retail. They are all pre-spoken for before then.
Now we even have ballots or expressions of interest or similar for Karuizawa and Hanyu not only internationally but also in Japan. I have seen this on the last single casks released of Yoichi and Miyagikyo on the Asahi shop site.
Exploring prices a little more every one can remember when the likes of Yamazaki and Hakushu 18YO’s climbed steeply in pricing a few years back. Two things I’d like to mention in this regard, firstly the prices internationally only went up to roughly the equivalent they have been selling for in Japan for years before. Secondly I speculate supply and demand. I really think that the major whisky produces in Japan are happy if they sell fewer bottles of long aged whiskies due to low stocks and have deliberately put the brakes on through pricing.
More evidence of dwindling aged stock are the likes of Hibiki 30 and Takatsuru 35 YO no longer being bottled. Takesturu 25YO was a replacement for the 35 year and even though you can still pick it up I’m not sure Nikka are bottling any more. Also there are the retailers that have been known for stocking Japanese whisky either in Japan or Internationally. Where it was not uncommon for these retailers to sell 50-60 different bottling’s a year or two back, now they are stocking 30 maybe 40 on a good day.
Lets have a distillery by distillery check of the action over the last 12 months or so:
Asahi(White Oak) – Only have one or two small production runs every year subject to whether would they would even bother to do that in any particular year(they produce other liquor as well).
Chichibu - We had the Chibidaru 2014 and a few limited production bottling’s(well even more limited than the Chibidaru) that very few people outside of Japan would be aware of because they were only sold there. By the by, if you wished you could get a hold of those Japan only release Chichibu, happy day’s only if you thought paying anywhere between $180-500 for 5-6YO whiskies was good value!
Hakushu – Well of coarse Suntory knowing they are struggling with aged casks have released the N0 Age Statement “Distillers Reserve” I think they’ve cut back or cut out the 10YO and we still have the 12 and 18 year old. We had the 2014 Sherry Cask but the Bourbon/Heavily Peated Casks annual releases went by the wayside. I think you may be able to find the 25YO if you could be bothered paying the stupid price it sells/sold for. Single casks, forget about it.
Hanyu - A smattering of limited releases if you could source them or afford them and usually both.
A big disappointment for me was they ‘finished’ the Card Series with the Jokers then in what I would call a cynical marketing ploy released the double card bottling/s. I can’t remember it there was more than one but that’s because I didn’t care.
Karuizawa – I would say pretty lame for the Karuizawa fans. Releases are getting fewer and farther between. Not such a big deal if your like me and can’t afford them(and the fact that I think they are the most over rated distillery on the planet).
Kirin: They actually released a blend and a young single malt. See, it was worth them closing Karuizawa when they had such a strong whisky output themselves : ). You can also pick up some other Single Cask and Single Grain stuff from these guys if you are in Japan.
Mars: Released a couple of blends and more importantly a couple of young single malts. This is actually really important for the future health of the Japanese whisky scene. I do believe they have some single cask stuff left from back in the ‘olden day’s’ but I have also heard that the cartel that controls Hanyu and Karuizawa are trying to get a hold of them.
Miyagikyo- Their standard range of 10/12/15 are still being bottled. Wait, I never see the 10YO any more. Single casks, forget it unless you were one of the privileged few who’s expression of interested was accepted by Asahi.
Yamazaki: See Hakushu. I should mention and this also goes for Hakushu, Suntory had the owner’s cask program running for a number of years and that seems to have sucked up most of the single cask offering’s they were prepared to release. Yes, places like Isetan in Japan do get single cask bottles from time to time from Yamazaki and Hakushu, but you you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time to get them. Of coarse we all know that the 2013 Sherry Cask(non single cask) release won a 2014 Whisky of the Year award!(I don’t have a sarcastic smiley). Far more importantly there were no 2014 releases of the sherry/bourbon/Puncheon/Heavily Peated/Mizunara casks released outside of Japan. Mizunara was a released in Japan but none of the others to my knowledge.
Yoichi: See Miyagiyo. I also believe that the 20YO, although you can still pick it up is not being bottled anymore or is certainly on the way out.
Nikka – Their pure malts, Black etc and blends such as From the Barrel are still readily available as is the Coffey malt and Coffey grain offerings.
Suntory – Their standard blends, think Kakubin, are still kicking along, Hibiki, the 12 and 17 are readily available but as mentioned the 30 although there might a few bottles left on shelves is now defunct in regards to new bottling’s and the 21 year seems to be coming rarer if not extinct in the neat future.
So where does this leave us at least the short to medium term in regards to what we will see from the Japanese Whisky producers, by short I mean in the next 12 months, medium at least the next 5 years:
From the major players such as Nikka and Suntory pretty much what we have come to expect over the last 12 -15 months. What you see on the shelves now with some limited stuff in Japan.
From players like Asahi/Mars/Kirin, you really need to be in Japan to buy their whisky. Hopefully Mars will be able to get their production numbers up so they can start creating a rep outside of Japan by making their whisky available in at least the UK/Europe. I think this would take quite a while though.
Hanyu/Karuizawa, doesn’t matter how many casks are left in reality, in any real terms there are sweet bugger all left and I bet pounds to peanuts very few are good enough to be released as single casks. The cartel won’t tell you that though!
Chichibu, of course we know that Akuto-san can make fine whiskey. Not only that you can taste the family heritage back to Hanyu. Biggest problem is price. Yep, I was happy to spend up to 100 buck on a fine young whisky. But when you are talking about 180-500 bucks, I like many people will baulk. We will have to wait and see what happens when Chichibu gets to producing a 10YO whisky and where Akuto-san sets the pricing at. There is also the major issue of the limited production capability or the numbers of bottles that Akuto-san is prepared to make. At the moment it would seem hard to envision at least in the next few years, there being enough production to start releasing Chichibu in the US.
Time to wrap things up. I get a lot of email from people asking where they can buy the rarer Japanese whiskey they read on whiskey reviews. They read about the many awards that Japanese Whiskey has won over the last half decade or so. Whisky drinking folk, or a lot of them at least, are finally convinced that Japanese Whiskey is not a novelty any more, but a product that can equal and often exceed the finest from Scotland. So what has happened now that so many whiskey drinkers have reached this epiphany?? They can’t buy the stuff that created the Legend! Sure in the US and Australian you can now buy more varieties of Japanese whisky than you could ever buy before, a whopping 6-8 varieties. There was a time a couple of years ago or so that you could jump on a whisky forum and read reviews about Japanese whisky from average punters even Hanyu and Karuizawa. You could see on the ‘what are you drinking now’ page or the ‘what is your latest whisky purchase page’, people mentioning a dram/bottle of Japanese whisky. Now seeing this is few and far between. Regular bottling’s have gone up in price relative to their Scottish counterpart and the single cask/rare bottling’s have gone into the yeh I can afford a bottle if I’m listed on the Forbes Richest 400 people list.
Could it be that legitimacy of Japanese Whisky that has been forged over the last 7-8 years will slide simply back into novelty?
*Note: Please take time to read the comments being posted on this page. There is lots of interesting reader feedback, experiences and updates including Chichibu in the US and Mars Revival in France, I seem to have dropped the ball on those 2.