Going mad for Japanese whiskies

All over the world, people seem to have suddenly gone mad for Japanese whisky. Last week, a bottle of Japanese whisky, a Karuizawa 1960 52YO Cask #5627 (one of only 41 bottles in the world), was auctioned for US$118,000 (S$167,000), a world record price for a single bottle of Japanese whisky.

At the same auction by Bonham's Auction Hong Kong, an almost complete collection of the legendary Hanyu Ichiro Card Series was sold for US$490,000, also a record for a combined lot of Japanese whisky.

It's not just the rare ones that are going for ridiculous prices. Even the prices for the more common bottlings of Japanese whisky have been increasing rapidly over the past year, and there is a marked shortage of Japanese whisky all over the world.

While its popularity has always been on the rise over the years, it was arguably Jim Murray, author of the Whisky Bible, who sparked the current craze for Japanese whisky. In Whisky Bible's 2015 edition, Murray declared the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013, a European exclusive that was not even sold in Japan, as the previous year's best whisky, claiming that it was a "single malt which no Scotch can at the moment get anywhere near".

It was a bold and somewhat controversial claim, and one that sparked a worldwide rush for Japanese whisky.

Last year, I visited Zoetrope, a little whisky bar in Tokyo with an impressive range of Japanese whiskies. There on the very first page of the bar's bottle list was this rather indignant declaration: "I don't have Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013, because it's a limited product for Europe not sold in Japan. I never got this bottle."

According to the owner of the bar, so many customers have been asking for that particular whisky that he had to put that up just to stop people from asking about it.

Whatever you think of the Whisky Bible and Murray's opinions, the fact remains that Japanese whisky does deserve its fair share of accolades. After all, it has always been a traditionally smooth and easy-to-drink style, and therefore easily accepted by most whisky drinkers, beginner or connoisseur alike.

But it wasn't always like that. Back in 1923, when Shinjiro Torii built Yamazaki (Japan's first distillery), his first product, the "Shirofuda" (white label) Suntory Whisky launched in 1929, was too heavy and had too many smoky flavours. It failed commercially because it did not suit the delicate palates of Japan's predominantly sake and beer drinkers back then. So, Torii had to change his whisky to make it lighter, gentler, and more delicate, and finally found success in 1937 with the launch of Suntory's iconic "kakubin" Suntory Whisky bottling. Suntory bottlings with age statements such as these will soon be a thing of the past, thanks to overwhelming demand and a supply shortage of Japanese whisky.

In addition to their own Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries in Japan, Suntory, through their acquisition of US bourbon producers Beam Inc in 2014, is also the third largest spirits producer in the world. One of the Scotch distilleries under the company - Bowmore - recently released a limited edition whisky finished in Japanese mizunara oak casks, called the Bowmore Mizunara Cask Finish.

The other "big boy" of Japanese whisky, Nikka, is also considered one of the pioneers of Japanese whisky. Its founder, Masataka Taketsuru, travelled to Scotland in 1918 to learn how to make whisky, and upon returning, founded Nikka in 1934 (after working with Suntory, then known as Kotobukiya, for a while) and build his own distillery, Yochi. The 10-year Yoichi single malt was one of the first Japanese whiskies to breakthrough internationally when it won Whisky Magazine's "Best of the Best" award in 2001.

Besides the two big boys, there are other whisky producers in Japan as well, including Ichiro's Malt, Mars Distillery, Kirin, and even a growing movement of smaller micro-distilleries producing "ji-whisky" - small batch whiskies that are only sold locally near the distillery.

With great popularity came some teething problems as well - the increased demand for Japanese whiskies means that the producers are experiencing difficulties in supply. It's gotten to a point where they just cannot keep up anymore, and have had to release non-aged statement (NAS) bottlings just to meet demand.

Earlier this year, in a letter to international importers (published on whisky website WhiskyCast.com), Nikka Whisky international sales and marketing head Emiko Kaji said a shortage of aged malt whisky stocks available to bottle and growing international demand has forced Nikka to stop making aged statement bottlings of single malts from their Yochi and Miyagikyo distilleries.

"With the current depletion, Yoichi and Miyagikyo malt whiskies, which are the base of most of our products, will be exhausted in the future and we will be unable to continue the business," she said in the letter.

That's not to say that the NAS bottlings from Japan are no good. Nikka, for example, have garnered quite a solid reputation for their Taketsuru blended whiskies, and their Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt whiskies (which was recently launched in Malaysia) are also decent tipples. But the demise of the aged-statement single malt whiskies is a real blow to whisky lovers, as some of these are really exceptional whiskies.

The Yamazaki 18 Year Old was, to me, one of the prime examples of a great Japanese whisky, while the Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts, especially the older ones, were great everyday drams.

While it is indeed sad to see some of these bottlings go out of production, and also to see prices for Japanese whiskies go higher and higher as a result of the global shortage, there is also a silver lining to it.

Thanks to the Japanese whiskies, there is a lot more interest in whiskies outside of Scotland and America now, and whiskies from other countries such as Taiwan, Australia, India and so on are getting more attention and more easily available as well. And that's wonderful news for a whisky lover.