Japanese whisky makers in high spirits as accolades pour in

CHICHIBU, Japan - When his family business was closing after nearly four centuries of making sake and other spirits, Ichiro Akuto swooped to rescue the doomed distillery's whisky stock and went out on his own.

A little over a decade later, the 10-person operation is on a roll with its Ichiro's Malt scooping up praise from a rapidly growing fan base in Japan and overseas.

"Some of that whisky had been maturing for 20 years... and it felt like leaving my children behind," said the 49-year-old Akuto.

"So I decided to take all that whisky with me and start a new business." Soaring demand for whiskies made in a country long associated with sake has catapulted Japan into the ranks of the world's whisky heavyweights - Scotland, Ireland, the United States and Canada - despite having fewer than 10 distilleries, about a tenth of the number in Scotland.

Commercial production has been around in Japan since the 1920's after a student who learned the art of whisky making in Scotland helped start the Yamazaki distillery near Kyoto.

But made-in-Japan whisky was practically unknown overseas even a decade ago until it started picking up a slew of top awards at international spirits competitions, followed by a boom in exports.

When the hammer fell at a rare whisky auction in Hong Kong last month, the Japanese brands sold out, including a bottle of 50-year-old Yamazaki which went for about $33,000, well above pre-sale estimates.

"Demand for rare single malt whiskies and in particular Japanese ones remains at an all-time high," auctioneer Bonhams said after the sale.

'Fresh taste'

About one-third of Ichiro's Malt is now sold overseas.

But it was a rough beginning as the distillery northwest of Tokyo was faced with declining whisky consumption at home while making a niche product that was aimed at the palates of bartenders and whisky lovers, rather than the mass market.

"Our success might have had something to do with that," Akuto said.

"But at first it didn't sell at all. The brand wasn't famous. It took two years to sell the first 600 bottles. Now I sell 600 bottles in a day." Yamazaki maker Suntory, a beverage giant which earlier this year bought the US maker of Jim Beam bourbon for nearly $16 billion, operates the sprawling Hakushu distillery nestled in a mountain-ringed forest with Mount Fuji in the distance.

Suntory - introduced to a global audience by Bill Murray's character in "Lost In Translation" - picked up "Distiller of the Year" at the 2014 International Spirits Challenge for the fourth time.

The distinctive green bottle of its award-winning Hakushu gives a nod to the natural surroundings of the distillery.

"To understand Hakushu's specificities, you need to know why we chose this place for the distillery," said general manager Takeshi Ono.

"Suntory wanted a place surrounded by rich nature, with plenty of water and green forests. We think this all gives Hakushu its fresh taste." The popular brand is among the 300-odd bottles on offer at Zoetrope, a whisky bar in Tokyo's bustling Shinjuku entertainment district.

Owner Atsushi Horigami is happy to help out customers keen on sampling his mostly-Japanese collection. But don't ask him if he has a favoured tipple.

"I can't say what my favourite one is. What I love about Japanese whisky is that there is so many variations," Horigami said.

"Generally, they're smooth and soft, with a sweet touch. But more importantly, they're really varied. Every distillery produces many types of their own whisky."

 'We're just maniacs'

Lebanese tourist Abdallah Atie sought out Zoetrope so he could try Ichiro's Malt and see what all the fuss was about.

"Four or five years ago, we could not find any Japanese whisky in Lebanon," he said.

"But now, every good bar has two or three kinds. Before that it was only Scotch and American bourbon." Zoetrope's owner reckons that his compatriots' obsessive attention to detail was the main reason for Japan's whisky success.

"There is a culture in Japan of not giving up. When we start something, we don't stop," he said.

"People would think you don't need to put that much effort in it, but well, since we've started we might as well do it right - I guess we're just maniacs."