Japanese Whisky Prices Go Through The Roof!

Ok, if you come from Europe or the UK you might being saying yeh so what, we already know. That’s because you would have witnessed the steady and more often that not, huge increase in the price of Japanese whisky over the last few years in those places, especially single cask stuff and even more particularly whisky from Karuizawa and Hanyu. But in this case I am not talking about prices in the UK or Europe, but Japan.
The fact was, that if you lived in Japan or had contacts there up until 12-18mths ago you had access to some rare, though not always good Japanese whisky and a lot of it. Primarily I’m talking about old whisky not new releases. Happy days if you had some spare cash and a crystal ball. Now for the most part I’m not a fan of Karuizawa, but these and I mean Japan only release stock, could be had between 80 and 150 bucks all day long. In fact sellers had a hard time offloading them. Hanyu, even new releases up until about 18 mths ago would often not sell for 6mths. No fighting to get in line, if you had the readies then the Japanese whisky world was your oyster. At this stage I will add that even although I have a decent amount of Japanese whisky here at Casa Dramtastic, there were many bottles that I had to let pass by due to lack of funds.

So why the change of attitude about the collectability of their own whisky by our friends in Japan. Is it because they finally realized that they make world class whisky that competes with the best from Scotland? I really don’t think so. The Japanese love their Yamazaki, Hakushu, Yoichi and Miyagikyo. Those distilleries have not had to worry about demand for their ‘standard’ lines for a number of years. Nope, I just reckon the speculator market has taken hold as news of what’s happening to prices of rare Japanese outside of Japan has reached Japanese ears. The presales of new releases of single casks from Karuizawa and Hanyu released in Japan that appear within a week at double the price and more on the auction scene smack of we don’t know if it’s good or not but we figure we can make a quick buck by flipping whatever we can get our hands on. There are probably not any more rare Japanese whiskies hitting the auction market than there was a few years ago, but the prices being asked are out the of reach of most mere mortals. That is not to say people aren’t bidding, almost anything but the most basic blends attracts bids and a lot that are totally crazy. Why crazy, because I’ve tasted a number of them and they aren’t that good or not as good as the prices fetched would indicate. Recently there was a bottle of 21YO Karuizawa for sale, don’t know what it went for, but bids were up to Y100,000(USD1000) with a number of days left on the Auction. For sure this was a rare bottle in terms of how many I’ve seen over the years, maybe 3, but it wasn’t a single cask and very few people would have tasted it. The bottle wasn’t even full with evaporation dropping the level down by 15%. Crazy!
So what does it all mean for those who’s means are only average. Forget about getting your hands on this stuff anymore. I for one am not going to pay the 400 bucks being asked for a 6 year old Hanyu I saw for sale the other day. I have picked up a few rare Kirin recently that are in relative terms good value and often good quality. Beyond that I am trying to grab new releases before they sell out. Will the bubble burst, not in the short to medium term me thinks especially when the last stocks of Karuizawa and Hanyu have dried up.

23 thoughts on “Japanese Whisky Prices Go Through The Roof!

  1. As you point it out, i guess it was unavoidable – thought it is always amazing to see how sudden it must have appeared in Japan.

    What is really depressing is that actual whisky amateurs/drinkers of japanese whisky are the first victims: they often feel the need to go on a hunt for rare bottles, here and now, to have a chance to get their hands on these amazing whiskies (not talking about those buying without having a clue) – i am one of them: i know there are some bottles i really want to taste one day, maybe today, maybe in 10 years, but if i dont fetch them right now, i might never have a chance again… thus the price increase over a very limited supply of bottles.

    Now speculation: i’m always wondering whether there are really that many speculators. Are there really that many people just buying and selling Karuizawa for the quick buck? It’s always puzzling to discover sold out bottles going right away on ebay or some auctions, and bidders paying double the sale price to get them. I see it every week… but if i were to actually count those, would it actually account for the price frenzy? I mean: this could be a very minor phenomenon, compared to all those that buy, keep and even drink the rarities ?

    I suspect the purely speculative population of whisky buyers is very limited (cf the latest survey results on dramming.com). And if i am correct, what does it mean? I guess it could mean the bubble might not burst before long, if at all. This is not a pure collectable market (such as stamps or old toys) in the sense that the bottles often end up being emptied by amateurs, making the left bottles ever more expensive: every time i open a bottle of Karuizawa or Hanyu, i do increase the price of all the other bottles that have not been opened yet, right? And in turn, this does also have an influence on the price of new releases ?

    Now specifically for Japan: could there also be some kind of cultural influence on this sudden price increase? The fact that foreigners praise and pay so much for Japanese whisky could have accelerated some kind of self consciousness about the actual value of their unique products? The Japanese would suddenly be aware that their whisky could be regarded as much more valuable thant they thought ?

    • Hi,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Yes I believe there are that many people buying Karuizawa/Hanyu to make a quick buck. Actually it does not take that many people when there are only a few hundred bottles per cask. I’m not sure why this surprises you when you say you see these sold out straight away then selling soon after for double the price. How many everyday people do you think can afford to pay 4/5/6 hundred Euro or more for a bottle of Karuizawa at auction/Ebay? Not many except for those with deep pockets who think they can sell them for a profit in the future. There are more than a few people that have close ties with the retailers and pre place their orders before release.

      From your previous comments you seem to be a fan of Karuizawa. Maybe you buy to drink them? I have followed the 2 biggest English language forums for the last 5 years and many people from Europe post there. Most members are more than happy to post that they are drinking a rare 40YO Scottish whisky. I’ve almost never read of anyone commenting they are drinking Karuizawa/Hanyu or even single casks from the other Japanese whisky distilleries. Why? Because they aren’t. Just because they do not all appear straight away at auction/ebay does not mean that they are not being stashed away to be sold at a later date. Most reviews I’ve read about these whiskies are from bloggers who get free samples.

      • Hi Dramtastic,

        yes, indeed, i am a big fan of Karuizawa (for me, there is nothing like it, it is very unique), and i do buy to drink – i even bought two open bottles that a wineshop had opened for tastings ! I drink as well the young ones – though i am not the biggest fan of the 90’s-2000 such as Asama, the exception being a lone single cask 1999-2011 which was huge – as the old ones – one of my open bottles right now is a 1970-2011, as well as the famous 80’s.

        I am not the only one over here – at least because i do share with my closest friends at dinners and “whisky parties”. I don’t follow much of english speaking forums, but mainly the french forum whisky-distilleries.info in which there are many many discussions or references in various topics about Karuizawa, and i mean sharing tasting comments here. Quite a lot of the members were actually lucky enough to buy and drink bottles of the famous 1967. And thru bottle-splitting, i was lucky to have the opportunity to taste it too for instance.

        Maybe we are, in France, especially fond of this distillery: in Paris, many new trendy cocktail bars have Karuizawa – not always on the written menu, but you see the bottles at the counter, and they’re usually already half empty. And i’m talking even 1972 Karuizawa here – one bar has it just around the corner where i live ! At the last whiskylive Paris, i attended a Karuizawa masterclass hosted by Dave Broom, we tasted 1971, 1973, 1974 and 1977: the class was sold out and full of real amateurs, that do actually drink their bottles. LMDW is a big importer of Karuizawa, and i guess they were part of “launching” the frenzy some years ago. So my guess is many French whisky amateurs do drink Karuizawa.

        Now, there is a collector’s phenomenon too: i cant deny i am a Karuizawa collector as well in a way. Not trying to collect them all, but trying to get as many different bottlings as possible. And i know – and i’m sure i’m not the only one – that i probably won’t drink all of them – and this is surely true for all other distilleries that people might try to collect bottles from. But i do only buy what i would drink. And yes, i even buy some more bottles… to swap: for instance, i did trade some Karuizawa bottles to get the two latest Noh that were solely for Scandinavia. Will i drink them ? Surely one day yes.

        So i certainly don’t buy to sell: it might certainly happen that i will sell some, on a forum or an auction (i.e., i have two bottles of the same cask, started to drink the first one and did not really appreciate it enough for considering to ever open the second one, so if i dont trade this second bottle, i’ll probably sell it, of course).

        A consequence: if many people do buy to drink, they do drink at a much slower pace (hopefully for their liver) than they do buy the next bottles. It does not mean they will re-sell: my belief is they will keep their bottles and drink them in 5,10 or 20 years from now – in a time where Karuizawa will have disappeared a long time ago.

        I see those “flippers” too, of course, but my belief is they are a minority. A painful minority, for sure, since they do make things much more complicated and expensive for the true amateurs. And it is a shame.

  2. I don’t care so much about collectors or speculator-collectors, the real big recent phenomenon that I have observed is what I call the “flippers”, where the next day or month, the whisky will be on some auction site somewhere…The recent Bowmore Devil’s cask hasn’t been even made available everywhere and it is already on an auction site for sale. New auction sites are popping up weekly. A few days ago 11,000 people tried to buy from a very small allocation at The Whisky Exchange in 3 minutes!! The very expensive Taiwan-release Karuizawas that were available from malt-city sold out in minutes, and the next month were available on auction sites in Europe for 3x-4x the original price. Same thing with the recent Karuizawa bottles available at LMDW in Paris…very expensive bottles sold out in minutes online. At TWE show a few weeks ago there were speculators/flippers trying to buy up many of the Karuizawas and even going as far to try to deceive the staff when they were told 1 bottle only…sure enough there is one already up for auction!

    Personally if I’m going to spend over £200 on a bottle of whisky I’m now leaning towards 80s/90s bottles of standard expressions (Laphroaig 15, Lagavulin 16, Bowmore 12) which are just completely outstanding. New Glendronach/Benriach single casks (outstanding and comparatively inexpensive for the time being)…..you might have noticed none of those are Japanese….that being said, I’m sure there will be the odd Japanese bottle that I will buy going forward (Nikka single casks until they are priced out, Mars Shinshu, Chichibu, grain whisky) but the Japanese scene is completely drying up, unless you can spend big money or just go and seek out old/odd/blend bottles!

    • Thanks Bret, I totally understand your strategy. For myself, I’ll continue to look at old bottles of Kirin and new releases from Mars, Chichibu, Akashi, Suntory and Nikka, though Nikka is pricing single cask Yoichi’s out of my comfort zone. Miyagikyo single casks remain good value for the moment. If you know before hand when they will be released and have contacts you can still pick up new release Karuizawa or Hanyu in Japan for reasonable prices but as you mentioned the flippers have already cottoned onto this as well. Point in case the latest release of Ichiro’s Malt the Game 5 Mizunara Cask finish. I think they were about 100-120 bucks. You had to be Johnny on the spot and of course they were turning up at auction in Japan within a week at twice the price or more with people bidding on them.
      Another phenomenon I have noticed in recent times in Japan is Karuizawa that were UK, Europe and Taiwan releases turning up at auction for 2-3 times the price. So they are being bought back to Japan and flipped there. Strange times indeed.
      I’ll be in Osaka end of December and will be making the most of the retail opportunities in placed like Isetan and Whisky Shop W. In general though, I am not buying anywhere near as many bottles of Japanese whisky as I used to due to current prices.

  3. Gentleman it is not just all about Karuizawa and Hanyu, unfortunately. The recent Nikka Sherry Wood Finish has also fallen under the “flipper” catogery, which for a whisky that retailed at 36 dollars and went to auction selling at 80 dollars suggests a lot of things. I was a little annoyed to be honest as I could only secure one. I wanted two, like I always try to do: one to crack there and then and one for down the track. You need to buy one for “down the track” as you’d never be able to afford that same whisky in year’s to come. If people are flogging of it now for 80 dollars even though it was 36 dollars I can’t afford it in a years time. I heard stories of some customers at certain retailers grabbing anywhere from 5 to 10 at a time – to me that’s a prime indication of someone who is nothing to more than consume, which spoils it for everyone else. There could be a time when these people are getting two for their 3 other mates for consumption but most likely not. Perhaps food for thought would be to control the situation – the retailer I mean. Most places do it anyway – limit the number of bottle purchases per person however, that does not control the amount that turn up at auction but it might allow those who really want it to drink the chance of securing a bottle. Things have certainly changed and there is the notion of J whisky being hyped here for what ever reason, whether influenced from abroad or not – now even sites similar to that of a pawn shop now offer J whisky. And it’s not your Hakushu 12yo but your Zawa’s and Hanyu’s only. Now that really indicates something. Will the bubble burst? As for pricing – I kind of thought that with the price increase of late it may deter most of those wanting to make a quick buck – however all what it seemed to have done was make it go even higher at auction – logical yes I know – but it means it really is going crazy.

    • Hi Clint,
      Thanks for your ‘on the ground’ perspective. It’s hard enough to fathom all of this from outside of Japan let alone knowing it is a struggle to keep up when you live there.

      • OK, i must admit there are maybe more flippers now that prices are really going crazy. I just saw what was on auction for the new session of whisky auction… a lot of Karuizawa this time ! For instance, 4 bottles (under 1 reference) of the same release limited to Scandinavia… where only one bottle was allowed per customer. So, yes, WTF !? As i understand it, someone actually got their hands on 4 (!) bottles whereas lots of others could not even grab one. I don’t know how they do it, but they do have to use quite “dishonest” tricks to grab 4 at once, just to get them sold at the next auction. Even if i didn’t get this right, it means 4 customers did only buy their allowed bottle to sell asap.

        I can understand people wanting to get rid of a bottle they won’t eventually drink, to buy something else for instance. But this one is such an obvious “flipper”… I guess i’m a bit naïve at times, but i still like to believe/hope that this remains a limited trend.

        Anyway, always interesting debates and comments on your blog Dramtastic !

        • Karuizawa is by far the most flipped Japanese whisky at auction, outside of Japan, and has been for at least 4 years. The number of listings either straight after release or after time when the sellers believe they can realize enough of a profit far outstrips every other distillery. Almost without fail, listings of Karuizawa bottling’s at auction are either equal to, or more than, all the other Japanese whisky distilleries being offered put together.
          Why buy if your not going to drink it? Almost no one is going to buy a bottle of Karuizawa as a gift for someone else. Someone else who then goes what’s this shit, I’m selling it to buy a bottle of Brora. This stuff is expensive enough to buy in the first place, no one makes a mistake when they order a bottle, well unless it ends up tasting like crap after paying so much. No, there a 2 main types of buyers for this stuff. Enthusiasts whether to drink, collect or both and flippers. The cartels who control the Karuizawa stock don’t care either way as long as the legend is perpetuated and they sell everything they’ve got even if their favorite customers get four bottles instead of the one allowed.
          Anyway, we won’t have to hear about new releases of Karuizawa before long.

          • Yeah, the “collecting” thing is a very irrational behaviour… and very costly when it comes to Karuizawa bottlings 😉 Anyway, i intend to drink the bottle when i buy it, i just know, in some moments of lucidity, that i physically won’t be able to do it for every one of them…

            “Anyway, we won’t have to hear about new releases of Karuizawa before long.”

            You think there won’t be new releases in the coming year ?

            I don’t remember if it was you or whiskies-r-us or nonjatta who made a count on the remaining stock, but it seemed there could still be enough for bottlings every year for at least 4-5 years at the current rate, or am i wrong ?

            The only recent info i had, was at the paris masterclass, where Marcin Miller said there was less than a dozen casks left from the 1970’s, and that the next bottling of 70’s Karuizawa would not happen befire 2 or 3 years.

            Ok, i hope i’m not trolling your topic here, sorry if it’s the case ;-p

          • I believe there will be releases throughout 2014 then not much left after that. My understanding is that all the remaining casks have been spoken for by various retailers in Japan, Taiwan, UK, Europe and Singapore(LMDW). Not sure if the US retailer is getting anymore. Plenty of casks have already gone into the Asama releases.

  4. Sorry if I’m missing something here but I still don’t understand why the Asama project took place. I know it was a vatting of various casks from 99/2000 and only casks from that vintage but from my understanding quite a few, well many casks were used for this. Would it not have been better for various reasons to limit the use of casks used in Asama and to have produced the majority of them as single casks at a later time after different intervals of maturation? I guess there was a logical reason as to why this path was chosen…well?

    • Yeh cuz they were crap as single casks Clint. Not much better vatted together. There’s been 2 separate releases of Asama’s, who’s to say there won’t be another.
      I think that because of the hype surrounding Karuizawa in certain circles there is a myth created that this small distillery can produce whisky and every cask will be a winner. No distillery can do that. Most casks go into blends whether vatted malts or blended with grain whisky. The very smallest part of a distilleries output goes into single casks.
      In reality very few whisky drinkers will ever taste a Karuizawa or Hanyu and I dare say the vast majority of whisky drinkers don’t care. There a plenty of other quality options at far more reasonable prices from Scottish Whisky distilleries that appeal to a far wider audience. You can get 40YO Longmorn’s for 300-400 bucks. Karuizawa is pretty much a one trick pony as 99% are sherry casks. You may as well just get the best few of those if you can afford them. I will miss Hanyu when they are all gone as they offer far more variety and are generally of a higher quality in my opinion. Fortunately the genes of that distillery have been past on to Chichibu.

      • I think they are planning a new version of Asama to be released soon. Not sure if by staying another year in the cask if this will make these any better.

        Btw, would there be any benefit for Chichibu to use the Karuizawa 80s casks in order to see if they provide any influence to their whisky? Have they done any such experimentation?

        • Hi SK,
          Yes I’m not sure if another year in the cask will make an average whisky any better. The only Influence I think that mixing 80’s Karuizawa to Chichibu would be sending the price up. With Chichibu I can taste the Hanyu style so I would personally prefer they didn’t mix the DNA. Also from what we’ve seen so far, Chichibu are fast maturing whisky anyway due to climate and the excellent cask selection/management of Akuto-san. I can only envisage a 10, even 8 year old Chichibu being superb.

  5. Another dimension if this bubble, is due to the financial situation. With low interest rates people are starting to speculate in order to get a return on their savings so wherever there is scarcity there are money to be made.
    Hopefully if Fed/ECB/BoE rates go up in few years, then we will the prices flatlining and if we are lucky dropping.
    Hope the distilleries are better prepared to withstand another 80s if this happens and hopefully not many will close.

    For sure, for anyone who buys and does not intend to drink I think they are making a big mistake because we could be now in the highest point of the bubble. For any anoraks, it is quite sad that they (perhaps we) are being priced out but i do expect that there is value to be found in other distilleries.

    • Hi SK,
      Excellent points and we shall see. I have set a limit for what I will pay for any one bottle, about 300 bucks and only a few of those a year, and if there is something that I would like to buy and cannot afford then so be it. Last thing I want to do is be sucked into the frenzy.
      I just witnessed another example of a Hanyu I mentioned, the latest version of The Game that initially sold for about $120 a month ago, where one flipper in Japan is asking $800. Don’t know if they will get it but there is another one that is about $500 with 20 bids on it already and a few days left to go at auction. This is a 13YO whisky with no reviews to speak of. Madness!

      • It makes you wonder what benefit do people see in paying so much money for whisky.
        If they want to drink it, hey i really cant critisize this, but if they want to sell it in the future for a higher price, they might be in for a suprise.

        However the latest releases from the distilleries (30 YO/40 YO) shows that there is a small but singificant market of whisky investors who are quite rich and are willing to pay prices above anything else.

        Lets see what will happen. It will be funny to watch it from the sidelines but really hope that the industry has got its act together and is not overexposed.

        • When you look at it SK, you only need 3-400 people willing to drop that much money on a bottle of whisky. That’s roughly how many bottles in the average single cask. Yes, a small number compared to how many whisky enthusiasts are out there, but there are probably 1000’s with the where with all and the inclination. I also reckon there would be more than a few out there who, with no vision of the future, bought bottles relatively cheaply a few years ago at retail, made a profit later on cause that’s the way the market went, invested that in new bottles, sold those and kept that cycle going till today.

  6. Speaking of through the roof! 19yo single cask Yamazaki at LMDW for 550 Euros:


    Ignoring supply/demand, Japanese whisky should cost 33% less in Euros from a year ago because of the weakening of the yen.

    For example, lets say a year ago this bottle would have been priced at 250 Euros from LMDW – a reasonable assumption. At a 1:100 Euro/Yen exchange rate a year ago the retail price equalled 25,000 Yen. Now at a 1:33 exchange rate at 550 Euros the retail price in yen is 73,000 Yen. Almost a tripling in price! Madness.

    • It was 495 EUR a year ago. I agree re the weakening Yen exchange rate – but presumably the import deal was all done at the old rates. New casks will be on the new weaker rate – but I do not think there is much chance that exchange rate savings will be passed on as cheaper prices! The best we can hope for is no large increase in Europe.

  7. Hi Brian. I take my eyes off the scene for a little while and it’s all madder than ever. I reckon many flippers are the retailers themselves and their staff, hence multiple bottle selling. Flippin’ b*stards.

    • Well in your words Pete there is a cartel controlling the whole thing. If I had access to them as stuff I’d take bottles in lieu of pay. A few months back when I was in Mexico and doing some research on tequila to buy I came across an article about a tequila collection for sale. Now I’m rather fond of tequila, have one beside me right now(Arte NOM Selection 1146). It’s a spirit the ignorant malign. Anyway, this collection had over 1000 bottles some over 100 years old. Price for the lot…..75 Grand. Puts the current lunacy of whisky prices in perspective.

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