Japanese Whisky – Where to From Here?

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.

29 thoughts on “Japanese Whisky – Where to From Here?

  1. I can put a pretty-good timeline on when it all changed, but there were two distinct waves.

    I became interested in Japanese whisky around 2003. I travelled to Japan a few times and visited Yamazaki, but really wasn’t the true hardcore anorak that I am now. In April 2006 I got married in Kyoto, at Shimogamo shrine. I remember distinctly going to Yamazaki again with some friends/relatives attending the wedding, and being in the shop where they had a whole wall (and cupboards) full of every single vintage cask release. I remember not buying the very dark, heavily sherried 1984 because at the time it was equivalent to 100GB, so I opted for the 1987 for 50GBP.

    Sometime during the space between that and my next visit (at the same time in 2007) everything changed. As I remember it wasn’t Karuizawa that caused most of it, in my opinion, it was the 1984 Yamazaki (I think it was the exact same bottle I observed, 1984/2005) winning the 2006 malt maniacs awards. This is also around the same time the Karuizawa hype machine was starting though, however prior to the 2006 MM awards, Japanese whisky was completely off the radar (I think) in terms of receiving awards from western bloggers/organizations. During my 2007 trip, I planned to buy more of the vintage cask releases (because I was turning into an anorak exactly at this point) but unfortunately upon my visit to Yamazaki it became apparent that EVERYTHING was gone, not even one single cask of anything remained, and in fact there was nothing special to buy there at all that year.

    The second wave which has now pushed the prices way over the top, in the last several years, is due to a combination of factors. New markets became interested (maybe mainly due to investment purposes) but I know there are fans as well. I’m talking Russia, China, Taiwan, etc…. where there seem to be some seriously rich people. Compounding that, some dude in a white hat said that Yamazaki Sherry Cask NAS was the best whisky in the world (late last year) and that really pushed prices over the top (it itself going from 100GBP to 1000GBP almost instantly), with anything else associated (Yamazaki, Hakushu single casks) doubling in price, from whatever they were before that. On top of that, with the interest locally in Japan reaching stratospheric levels already, interest was pushed to the point of no return by the Asadora (the morning drama) based on the story of Masataka Taketsuru and his wife, Rita (which runs to the end of this month).

    Now as you say, most of the interesting affordable releases (and there still definitely are some from an anorak’s point of view) seem to be hitting the Japan market only.

    Through the use of connections, auction websites (where everything is at least double the price) I still have been able to obtain some interesting things – but with the secondary market prices, the shipping and customs (to the UK) I think this is really only an anorak’s game at this point (as I doubt investors will be getting a quick return on these).

    You listed some, but for me the recent releases that stand out (because of availability and price) are the several Mars releases of their new regime (2011+), The Kirin Fuji grain releases (NAS blender’s grain winning a WWA2015 award), White Oak/Eigashima 5yo wine finish, and the Yamazakura/Cherry 15yo pure malt (which seems to come with a weird story including being vatted for a while and finally having a wine cask finish). To obtain anything else interesting you need to have serious cash and the ability to use the auction sites.

    • Hi Bret,
      Thanks for your input as a true Japanese whiskey enthusiast.
      By any measure it was the Single Cask Yoichi that won the 2001 Whisky Mag Award for best of the best that is most often cited in the general press as the most important turning point for recognition of Japanese whisky by a legitimate source.
      Now most of the press you read about this achievement did not know about it at the time but most quote this award now. Now as you mention there may have been a small number of anoraks that were aware of and enjoying Japanese whisky before 2008. I am talking about a more general awakening. As you know I was an active member of a couple of well know Whisky Forums back in the day and it wasn’t until closer to 2009-2010 before folks on these sites who were serious whiskey enthusiasts started to post with greater regularity their experiences with Japanese whisky. When I started to get into Japanese Whiskey back in 2008 I had to search very hard to get any info on Japanese Whiskey written in English. There was Chris Bunting’s site, which was not long finding it’s feet and at that time he was using the reviews of the world’s most famous whiskey blogger. Virtually everything else I learnt about Japanese whiskey I had to dig very deep to find.
      I’ve been to the Yamazaki Distillery a few times since 2008 and you could only ever buy the standard offerings there. Why you could not buy those single cask bottling’s you first saw anymore I have no idea. I personally doubt it had anything to do with the awards you mentioned. Reason, because single cask Yamazaki and Hakushu were available at Isetan, Shinanoya, Takashimaya and other’s and as with The Game, if I didn’t buy them on one trip 6 months later they were still on the shelves. I remember going into Takashimaya in about 2011 when they had quite a few of their own special bottling’s and the staff seemed amazed that anyone could be as interested in Japanese whiskey as I was. Liquors Hasegawa had single cask Karuizawa back in around 2011-12 that were sitting on the shelves gathering dust. It would have only been 3 years ago I could have bought the Ace of Spades Hanyu first release in Japan for about 500 bucks. Now you be looking at about $4000 I’d guess.
      Just to finish have you tried the Cherry Whiskey Pure Malt 15 you mentioned yet? I think I’ll grab a bottle at some stage. I used to see lots of their bottling’s when I first started, very few now.
      Brian

      • The 2001 Whiskymag award was a little before my time I think, and it definitely seems to have been relatively quiet until the Malt Maniacs started hyping it (with awards starting from 2006) in conjunction with several European retailers pushing it. So even though the press may quote that now (as you say) it doesn’t jive with what I/we know as when things started really happening.

        Of course as you know many single casks were available at BIC Camera as well until relatively recently (I’d say the most selection out of anywhere)…..so yes, it is strange that after the MM awards they (the vintage cask releases) were no-longer available at the distillery. It could very well be that Suntory/Yamazaki corporate pulled them to do other things with…hard to say since I was not there when it happened…but something big happened in the space of 1 year with those anyway (with the MM awards being at the end of 2006). I personally remember those MM awards as being a huge turning point (but it was also right before other things started happening, like Hanyu/Karuizawa hype).

        Re. the Yamazakura 15 – I’m going to be trying it at the end of this month, so will let you all know. From the reviews I’ve read (translating Japanese blogs) it seems to be good/interesting.

        • Just to clarify Bret the 2001 Award was the first one I became aware of when I first started as well as the one most quoted in press articles on Japanese Whisky history that I have read up until today. As a preference I prefer not to talk about specific awards as it may come off that I am promoting one or the other. In reality I think most if not all of them are a self indulgent wankfest but they have bought attention to the Japanese whiskey industry so will mention that Japanese whiskeys have won many awards in general conversation with those who are curious. I actually could not have quoted the award you mentioned as I had no knowledge of it.

          • I agree! I wonder why however It took until 2007 for Japanese to win another (whisky magazine) award…and then won multiple awards every year since 2007. What happened between 2002-2006?! As I said, I didn’t really start getting into it from an anorak point of view until early 2006….and one reason is I think it was relatively absent from the press after that initial 2001 WMA win (which I had completely forgotten reading about)…until the hype machine started sometime mid-late 2006. It is funny that this award is not even mentioned on Suntory’s own list of awards: http://www.suntory.com/factory/whisky/prize/index.html and it appears in that 2002-2006 WMA dead period there were some ISC and IWSC awards received).

  2. First of all, this my first time posting on this blog (or any Japanese whisky blog for that matter!). Thank you for all the wonderful reviews, tastings, and commentaries. They are very much appreciated.

    First off, we can’t discuss Japanese whisky in a vacuum. The fact is that demand for brown spirits has skyrocketed, and that is both a function of popularity and the increasing number of global markets served. The stuff is popular, be it scotch, bourbon, etc!

    As for limited release, single cask, rare offerings, etc. or those bottlings from now closed distilleries, the trends for the Japanese are very much following the same trends found elsewhere. Pappy Van Winkle anyone? How about Port Ellen? I grant you that certain Japanese whiskies have absolutely skyrocketed. As a result, these bottles have captured the attention of global collectors and speculators alike.

    And some folks are trying. Note the efforts of the SMWS or TWE to insure that rare bottlings get into the hands of more fans versus mere speculators. Buy yes, much of the supply is hard to come by, especially outside Japan, and production numbers remain quite limited.

    By the way, Chichibu has been released in the U.S., Mars latest offering (The Revival) is available in Europe, and there is very much a Yamazaki 2014 Mizunara (I own two bottles of the 2014, released only in Japan and ones I managed to find in Tokyo); as another aside, the Yamazaki Limited Edition 2014 is quite tasty.

    In any case: what comes next? As with all cycles, things will temper out and turn, as they always do. But beyond just the cyclicality, the Japanese whisky industry is turning up the heat. New distilleries are opening, existing folks are doing some interesting things, and with time, some fun stuff should see the light of day. Pricing is stiff, but it will turn. Until then, plenty of tasty stuff to try in the interim!

    • Thank you for your contribution Nim, I hadn’t picked up on the fact that there was a Chichibu released in the US, a 3 Year Old also named The First and bottled at 59%abv which is less than the original The First. Quite frankly I still find that a bit weird. Why only a 3YO, why name it The First again. Yeh I get it’s the first Chichibu being sold in the US but I think it lacks some imagination. Also it costs over $200. Hmmm, when I was in San Diego in February this year a bottle of Yoichi 15YO in a liquor store I went to was $145. A 3YO Chichibu is just not a $200 whisky.I still think there is going to be a supply shortage of Chichibu and the US will get bottling’s in dribs and drabs for a while yet. I can see that LMDW has the Mars Revival in stock, but at Euro130 good luck with seeing those fly off the shelf. I would think but am not sure that would be bought in by a third party wholesaler not the distillery themselves. I have seen Mars bottling’s for sale in Europe before but again, I don’t believe they were imported directly from the factory. Glad you got a couple of bottles of Mizunara 2014, missed it totally myself as you can see but that is sometimes the case with Japanese only releases. Very few bottles and easy to miss as who is reviewing them in English?

      • I had the american Chichibu The First at Angel’s share in NYC a while back, it was the first non yamazaki/hakushu japanese whiskey I’d had and it was easily one of the best whiskeys ive ever tasted. I’m very much a japanese whiskey newbie but at the time it absolutely felt like it was worth more than the 60-100$ whiskeys i’d had previously.

  3. Prices in auctions are unreal. Sadly for any old whisky drinker it makes you consider selling some of your bottles (specially if there is a need).
    Then you can use proceeds to buy more bottles of something that is more logically priced.

    However I think this is all part of the low rates/QE world we love in. If rates do go up soon, then some investors might have to drink what they bought.

    • Possibly. I know I’m sure reticent to open up a 2-3000 dollar bottle of whisky just to write up some tasting notes. I can still get very nice Japanese whisky for under 100 or even 30 bucks(in Japan) that have no investment value whatsoever. Happy to open those with pleasure

      • Sorry for the delay in replying..

        I am selling mine. By selling one , I can get many Scotch whiskies of similar age or even older (yes many and even silent ones).
        Not sure who spends 2000-3000$ for a bottle of whisky but it does not make sense.

  4. I can very much relate to your comments, Brian. Although my ‘history’ with Japanese whisky is not as long as yours, as I started getting the bug just four years ago, my experience is somewhat similar. I can still remember buying a bottle of Karuizawa 15yo for 5,000 yen in a local liquor shop in Akashi in 2011 – probably not possible anymore today. Similar bottles were available until 2012 in selected shops in Switzerland until 2012 for quite reasonable prices, i.e. between 10,000 and 15,000 – unthinkable today. I bought my first bottle of Yamazaki 18yo in 2011 for US$ 170. Now Yamazaki has been unavailable here for six months and rumour has it that a bottle will retail for US$ 300 once it is back in stores. TImes have changed indeed.

    My very short take of the situation is as follows:
    1. Hanyu and Karuizawa stocks have dried up. – Fine with me, as I never became a big fan of Hanyu and as Karuizawa always was hit and miss with me, with stellar bottlings being followed by horrendous ones.
    2. Yamazaki stocks continue to be low. – As I heard this weekend Beam Suntory execs have been asked by their company to refrain from consuming Hakushu and Yamazaki with higher age statements (i.e. 18yo and 25yo). This is a pity mainly because of the Yamazaki 18yo that I truly like and that I value as one of the best sherried 18-year olds out in the market. Hakushu 12yo, one of my favourite everyday malts, continues to be widely available, which is a good thing.
    3. Yoichi 20yo is on the way out. – This was good to learn as I have never tried the 20yo and want to make sure to get a bottle before it disappears for good.
    4. Miyagikyo still widely available (except for the 10yo). – Thank god, as I am a BIG fan of Miyagikyo and try to add the single cask expression to my cabinet.
    5. Chichbu and Mars. – Difficult to get all the news here in Europe but thankfully a good soul in Japan makes sure that I am being kept up-to-date. Stellar bottlings are rare but once in a while something comes along that you don’t want to miss. Also good to look at from a future perspective.

    • Hi Pierre,
      Thanks for you contribution. I can tell you that I was buying about 30-50 bottles of Japanese whiskey a year for a number of years. In the last 12-15 months I don’t think I bought more than 10. Now I have plenty to choose from that are open at home, but more to the point I just can’t afford most of the bottling’s I would like to buy anymore. I have a 1969 40YO Single Cask Sherry Butt Longmorn and I did some research on the potential value the other day and even though the reviews are excellent your looking at about $450-500 bucks for one of these. Think $4-5000 if it was a similar Japanese bottling.

  5. Thanks again Dramtastic for your blog, always looking forward to news and tasting notes!

    And indeed it is always a good thing to take the time and try to analyze the current situation.

    Thing is, i actually got really interested in whisky thru the arrival of japanese whisky – must’ve been back in 2008-2009 or something. I guess there is also often some kind of ageing involved – talking about my own age – as i watch around me that most amateurs tend to start getting interested in scotch in their thirties or late thirties. Anyway, by that time, in Paris started the renewal of cocktails, with new trendy chic spots dedicated to mixology. And they had japanese whisky, that’s how i discovered Hibiki 12 at the Prescription Club, and it was kind of a revelation – i had only trusted Lagavulin 16 thus far, so it was quite a shock, and from then on, i started to explore japanese whisky, and scotch too at the same time.

    I guess LMDW must’ve paved the way for japanese whisky in France, and they succeeded even more than in their wildest dreams i guess – Hibiki and Nikka from the barrel being rapidly incredibly popular. Everybody would start trying and talk about japanese whisky in Paris – it became the latest trend, the buzz, the drink-to-have. Well, contrary to many short-termed trends, this one lasts: we can all understand that it was not only hype (even if the japanese spirit, design, minimalism, etc. adds to the fashionable side), but japanese whisky is indeed incredible stuff.

    Nowadays, every bar/club in Paris has to have decent japanese whisky – and the ones which want to be even more hip will offer the best of the premium: i’m living in Pigalle, which has become the place to be in Paris, right now; clubs, restaurants and bars opening every week – and some of the best places around the corner do offer e.g. the latest Karuizawa (just spotted 1981 c.152, 1984 c.8173, even some 1972).

    The enthusiasm for japanese whisky got even stronger of course with the Jim Murray “thing” (how can we call this? marketing stunt mostly, laughable if only it did not cause so much damage). Everyone asking for the yamazaki sherry, which was already unavailable even when it got released. I dont think there was a 2014 yamazaki offer in France, haven’t seen it and no one else around me has. Hibiki 21 was always hard to find, and i understand it will be discontinued?

    I think i already reported how most Karuizawa and all Hanyu disappeared from the shelves about two years ago. The latest releases were all sold with a waiting list – people had to ask for it months in advance – as you stated it, you need to have a good relationship with the retailer to have a chance to be on the list. And not even everyone on the list would be getting a bottle in the end. So many people were furious that LMDW (talking about the shop, not the website) said they would not do any waiting list anymore. I don’t know how it’s gonna work for the next releases. The suspicion is that LMDW withheld a good portion of the stock for later resale – another form of speculation (“oh, we just found a lost stock of Karuizawa, here it is, get a 1981 for 2500 €”). Can’t really blame LMDW to keep some of the stock: but how much is too much?

    Mars just arrived at LMDW with the Revival, so i guess it won’t be long before they offer their own selected cask – and LMDW experts do know their stuff when it comes to selecting a good cask, the problem is the price!

    Yoichi and Miyagikyo single casks have been become very hard to get after the MMA last december: for some weeks, you could have them, but i guess some people hesitated because of the steep price rise, then they sold out in a matter of days.

    Asahi is pretty invisible to anoraks here i think. The brand does not have a reputation, neither good nor bad – nobody i know drinks it. It is mostly sold in very casual wine shops. No hype here. Yet.

    LMDW has always tried to put the hype on Chichibu from the start, even by the time there was a LMDW club, they would organize some events with Ichiro Akuto. I’m not sure it sells very well, because it is quite expensive and difficult to brand imho: for the casual amateurs, there is a lot of japanese whisky that is easier, cheaper and more identifiable; for the anorak, it is too expensive given its age… and the different releases are not actually different enough to buy/try everyone of them. I guess the two new single cask releases, alongside a Hanyu with the same label art, might focus more interest among anoraks (i tasted the younger one, which was actually way better than i had thought). But then again, the price stings…

    About bloggers – i’m not sure who you are referring to, but i guess SV is most respected and influential of them all. Yes, he loves Karuizawa, and certainly helped (a lot) starting the hype around the distillery here in France (which, at start, would not sell, because it was unknown – some friends remember LMDW sellers trying to sell them Karuizawa 1967 by the case, because they had too many left). You can’t blame him for loving the stuff: he helped thousands discover what most of us consider to be an incredible and pretty unique whisky. Backfire was the inevitable rise of prices. But then again: SV never tasted that many Hanyu for instance, nor given that many stellar notes to that distillery. It did not change anything to the fate of Hanyu bottles, which took the exact same road as Karuizawa, despite way less blogger “publicity”.

    PS: What is the cartel you are mentioning by the way? Is it Number One Drinks?

    • Hi Elskling,
      Thank you for your detailed report/feedback, very interesting.
      As for who the Cartel is, the one’s that control the market of single cask Japanese Whiskey outside of Japan and it’s not just a single entity. I’m sure can join the dots and figure it out : )

  6. Some great comments here, great to see activity finally!

    some additional comments from me:

    There has been a steady rise across the sector (brown spirits) that is true, and shouldn’t be overlooked but there are certain key events (many outlined above) that caused the meteoric price rises with Japanese whisky (across almost the entire range of brands) that have no equal (even compared to Pappy which was of course also caused by hype)…and yes, it can’t be overlooked that LMdW, TWE, Malt Maniacs (SV) have played very major role in all of this.

    Karuizawa definitely has been the most hyped and fastest rising. It took Hanyu a long while to match, it was at least a year, or even years later than when Karuizawa launched into crazy price territory.

    It is interesting to compare Japanese whisky to previous top risers/top hyped, for example just look at auction prices for Ardbeg, which seems to have plateaued and gone down in price at auctions significantly recently (look for lord of the isles at the last scotchwhiskyauctions auction for example). I wonder if this is a sign of things to come for whisky prices in general. BTW I’d rather have a bottle of Lord of the Isles than many/most Japanese whiskies if we were rating based on taste/experience alone.

    It is Asahi (massive company) which owns Nikka. Akashi is White Oak/Eigashima and is tiny.

    There have been a few Mars releases lately that most people haven’t heard of, only available in Japan:

    The Zenkoji Memorial 2011 57%.
    Sherry and American White Oak 57%

    Trying to acquire some of those.

  7. Interesting perspective. Great productive post Brian. I enjoyed reading it along with all the comments, and glad someone has put the current reality of Japanese whisky down on…er..screen. I was going to put down my two cents worth but if I must be honest everything I did want to say has basically already been mentioned by your readers so no need to repeat myself. What I will say however is visually for me I recognized things seriously begin to change in 2013. Visually naturally meaning if you knew where to look, and I’m not talking about major department stores you could still come across a good find, but at the end of 2013, nothing, not a thing, even in the most remote places. Perhaps something I’d like to add is it equally hard for us here to get things regardless, let alone for enthusiasts out side of the country. And it’s not just new releases, not just premium bottlings from lost distilleries, it’s your standard run of the mill stuff, well I’m
    not talking about current NAS stuff but stuff that were in plenty on any given but now one, even here struggles to find. The influence from TV dramas is there, but the majority who jump on the wagon are most likely opting for your Taketsuru NAS. Old bottles are currently running of the shelf, expressions that had never had any value of interest, but by looking around now even that’s changed therefore it could get worse in terms of availability or perhaps, as your reader mention it could just be a cycle. On a different note, we are almost at the end of March and no suggestions of any Hak sherry this year and I presume we can count out any Yama cask collection.

    • About cycles:

      – Karuizawa / Hanyu: i don’t really hope for any downward movement on prices… at all. Closed and famous distilleries, the number of bottles decreases every time someone opens and drinks a bottle (and it happens, more slowly for sure now that prices are that high, but still). These are out of any cycle, i guess.

      – Nikka / Suntory: these might be more subject to cycles maybe, but then again: would it affect single casks ?

      – Chichibu: prices have always been high, maybe we can hope a cycle effect would be that older Chichibu does not cost too much?

      – Mars: like Chichibu, maybe prices for older stuff would not skyrocket ?

    • Actually it’s of great value to have your ‘on the ground’ perspective noted Clint. As you know we will be back in Tokyo in early May so will be interesting to see what I can find or not as the case may be.
      Brian

  8. Very insightful. It is great to see a comments section with this level of discussion.

    In London last summer I noticed the penny drop in particular for Karuizawa. A certain UK shop responsible for the Spirit of Asama release had steady supply for a long time before stock suddenly dried up by which time all other young Karuizawa’s was now an asset .

    Of course single cask bottles from all distilleries had disappeared from the shelves long before. One only needs to look at how quickly the Yoichi sold out in October despite retailing for over £300. Another blink and you will mis it moment was the £220 being charged in the UK for The Joker as a surprise in store only release.

    The real shame for serious malt fans is that no sooner have many been able to appreciate these single casks that they are now out of our reach. It seems there is a market for speculators and a market for newcomers who are satisfied with a simple NAS in neat packaging however no market for us malt anoraks 🙁

  9. Your excellent article has stimulated some interesting discussion, Brian.
    The last Nikka single cask bottles I was able to get a hold of were in early 2013 – a Yoichi which was about Y20,000 & a couple of a Miyagikyo (about Y22,000 for the two), including shipping. I seem to remember the following Yoichi single cask release was about Y30,000 – a huge jump in price.
    More recently, it has been more difficult to track down interesting bottles at a reasonable price. Recent purchases include the Southern Alps Pure Malt, the Hokuto 12yo & the 55.5%. These are remnants of discontinued bottlings. The only real exception was the Yamazaki Limited Edition 2014, which is rumoured to have some quite old material in it – I haven’t opened it yet.
    My only solution is to get my brother to do a bit of legwork on my behalf until I can get over there again.
    But, as Clint says, interesting bottles are rather harder to find now, even if you’re there.
    It makes me so glad I picked up a bottle of that Bar Hermit West Yama single cask you recommended! It seemed on the pricy side then, but now it looks like a bargain!

    • Hi Alan,

      I’ve been away over Easter so thanks for your contribution. Yep that Bar Hermit bottling was a bargain, can’t see that it would be any less than 4 times the price in today’s market. Hope your brother comes across something interesting for you from time to time. We’ll be back in Tokyo in May so will be interesting to see what I can or cannot find.
      Cheers
      Brian

    • Hi Alan, I was amused to read your comment, or perhaps I should say ‘ironic’. The reason being when I mentioned in my comment that interesting, but relative standard bottles were becoming hard to find I was specifically thinking of things like the Hokuto 12yo. At one stage I had a hard time trying to find a bottle of that, then all of a sudden I found a mountain of them everywhere….now….is a different story. I haven’t seen a bottle for at least a year now. Another thing to find hard to understand are things like the Komagatake 10yo pure malt. Cheap, not a limited release, but I bet you will not find a bottle on the shelf. Leg work is the only way – providing you get to stores before someone else 🙂

  10. Hey, Brian! Love the reviews man, really informative for a starting whisky lover.
    In the post, what do you mean with: “b) … wait for the page to time out cuz…”

    Thanks a bunch,

    Christophe
    Belgium

    • Hi Christophe,
      It means the internet page will time out because there are so many people trying to buy exclusive releases the server cannot handle the volume.
      Brian

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