TOKYO - After years of being overshadowed at home and practically unheard of overseas, Japan's whisky distilleries are expanding capacity as their malts become serious contenders against Scottish and Irish brands.
Exports are booming at Nikka, owned by Asahi Group Holdings, and at Suntory Holdings, which is ramping up production at its Yamazaki distillery for the first time in 45 years as domestic sales recover from a prolonged slump.
But some are concerned the distilleries may be caught out if the enthusiasm for whisky changes as it did in the 1990s, when several smaller players shut down as Japanese drinkers shifted to beer, clear spirits and imported liquor.
"At the moment, no one can see this boom busting. The difficulty is that you're making it today for 20 or 50 years'time," said Marcin Miller, an importer of small-batch Japanese whisky with his British company Number One Drinks.
The drop in demand during the 1990s meant Suntory and Nikka had to cut production, industry experts say, leaving distilleries with a shortage of stock for their youngest single malts when whisky made a comeback in 2008.
Last year, Suntory stopped making its 10-year Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts and introduced "no age" versions. Nikka is expected to phase out its 12-year Taketsuru single malt after releasing a "no age" variety this year.
The slump had more a serious impact on minor distilleries such as Karuizawa, Mars and Hanyu. All three were mothballed by 2000 and their stock left dormant until a run of international awards for Japanese whisky brought buyers knocking.
BOOTLEG TO BLOCKBUSTER
In its earliest incarnation, Japanese whisky was a bootleg adulterated with spices and perfume. Lacking strict regulations of the Scottish and Irish varieties, it was largely ignored by foreign connoisseurs for much of its 90-year history.