A title such as the one for this post could at first glance look like click bait. Bit dramatic isn’t it!
I’m going to tell you a story that is only a decade old and one that I believe backs up the title.
Firstly, what has prompted the post? It is the current online Japanese Whisky news doing the rounds about Suntory discontinuing both Hakushu 12 Year Old Single Malt and The Hibiki 17 Year Old Blend in the second half of this year. Some may have even read that here at the Japanese Whisky Review as we have a number of fantastic reader/contributors adding comments in the annual Buying Whisky in Japan post. One of our contributors posted on the rumor(now true) at the beginning of the month. You may wish to follow that post moving forward as these contributors really have their finger on the pulse.
Now lets go back to where it all started, at least for me, almost a decade ago on my journey into the world of Japanese whisky. Actually, most of what I am about to write about what Japanese Whisky was available to many folks is good up until about 5-6 years ago. Maybe you didn’t have some of these bottling’s in your home country but they were readily available on line from retailers in the UK and Europe who ship worldwide.
I don’t want to dwell too much on closed distilleries such as Hanyu or Karuizawa. For most whisky drinkers you may as well be talking about the Unicorn, myths and legends that they will never see, only read about.
The Big Two Japanese whisky producers are Suntory and Nikka! Within the time frame mentioned in the last paragraph, this is what you could find easily on the shelves of liquor stores in Japan and many of them from retailers outside of Japan.
Lets start with Suntory and I will be focusing on age statement bottling’s. Number will represent the age in years and I’ll be adding the approximate price in Yen so you will be able to do the exchange rate into your own currency.
Suntory Royal Blend 12 and 15. Y2,500 and Y4,000.
Suntory Hibiki blends 12, 17 and 17 50.5% and 21. Y6,000, Y10,000 and Y20,000.
Yamazaki Single Malt 10, 12, and 18. Y4,000, Y6000 and Y20,000.
Chita Single Grain 12. Y5,000.
Next up Nikka
Yoichi Single Malt 10, 12, 15 and 20. Y4,000, Y6,000, Y10,000 and Y20,000
Miyagikyo Single Malt 10, 12, and 15. Y4,000, Y6,000 and Y10,000
Taketsuru Pure Malt 12, 17 and 21. Y4,000, Y7,000 and Y10,000.
Also readily available at retail, distillery or online.
Multiple annual vintage or special cask releases. Multiple single cask aged statement whiskies. These are the ones you might see listed on Whiskybase and wonder how the hell people got those bottle’s
Suntory even had an Owner’s Cask program in Japan where you could buy a whole cask of Yamazaki or Hakushu. Yes it was a marketing program to try and sell more whisky when the Japanese Whisky Industry was in the doldrums but again, it was in the time line I have mentioned. Suntory used to advertise the program on it’s website with prices, age, age distilled and cask type. I can tell you that you could buy many a cask for less than a single bottle some Yamazaki or Hakushu might sell today at auction.
So what do we have today that’s widely available removing the soon to be discontinued bottling’s.
1 x Hakushu and 1 x Yamzaki single malt no age statement bottling’s.
Yamazaki 12 single malt
Hibiki Harmony and Harmony Masters Select(Airport exclusive) no age statement blends.
Chita Single Grain whisky no age statement.
A few no age statement blends.
Nikka From the Barrel no age statement(though this is a personal favorite and generally well regarded in whisky circles).
1 x Miyagikyo and 1 x Yoichi single malt no age statement bottling’s.
Taketsuru Pure Malt no age statement.
Nikka The Blend 12YO.
A few no age statement blends.
You may not feel a hint of depression after reading that but I sure do. We are down to 2 readily available age statement bottling’s from the two biggest players in the Japanese whisky industry.
Now it’s easy to read many articles online as the the reasons why the current state of play. Doesn’t really help much though. Also, I have read where journalists have spoken to a rep from Nikka or Suntory and they are trying to talk up how they are still going to concentrate on the quality of their whisky. No doubt they will but it does not mean the whiskies will be particularly great either. Make up your own minds but from the current list, I only rate a few as stuff I’d wish to have in the whisky cabinet at all times. Can young whiskies be very good, sure can. But why should we pay the same price for NAS whisky as age statement whisky. It may not even be that one is better than another, but we also know we are paying more for an age statement whisky because the age statement cask has to recoup the time invested by the distillery warehousing the barrels for 10 years or more.
So what about the future say 3 to 8 years?
We have big production ramp ups from both Nikka and Suntory going back a few years but it will be many years before we start seeing any multiple readily available age statement bottling’s from either and then at what price? I also worry that that they will fear being caught with their pants down again and release age statement bottling’s irregularly as special releases and at premium prices.
We have new Japanese Whisky distilleries that will have bottling’s of no younger than 3 years available by the time of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The issue here is that like Chichibu, Mars and Akashi they will be small concerns with limited production runs as will be the total amount of liquid distilled. So many whisky fans will never have a chance to buy a bottle, especially age statements or single casks. We all know the price of many a Chichibu at auction!!!
You are certainly not going to be able to nip down to Costco’s and grab a bottle when the mood strikes.
So what do we really need from Suntory and Nikka moving forward?
In the short term if you are going to bottle mainly no age statement whiskies please give it character and complexity, especially the distinct distillery characterisitcs of Yamazaki, Hakushu, Yoichi and Miyagikyo. For the most part for anyone that had the pleasure of enjoying the age statement versions, both Suntory and Nikka have failed.
Make the prices commensurate with having no age on the label. A no age statement bottling should never cost the same as the age statement bottling version did yet they do.
Have the balls to produce enough whisky so that in the future they can consistently stock retail shelves in all the major markets with various age statement bottling’s at fair prices! There, I’ve said it!