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Whisky business: Is the Japanese whisky shortage really a cause for concern?
“ACQUIRING JAPANESE WHISKY requires a lot of patience, resources and most of all – luck,” notes Loh Chin Hui, an avid collector who showcases his latest buys under the moniker, Whisky Uncle.
Anyone who has faced empty shelves at Haneda or Narita airports’ duty-free shops or scoured stores in Tokyo for signs of Hibiki 17 Year Old or Hakushu 12 Year Old will know what he means.
The interest in Japanese whisky has grown exponentially and it’s getting harder for consumers to get their hands on them. Mr Loh says that he’s often had to enlist the help of friends and contacts living in Japan or the UK for even the slightest chance of bringing them home.
WHY JAPANESE WHISKY?
Scotch whisky may be the real McCoy but it has since been relinquishing much of the limelight to the likes of Yamazaki, Suntory and Nikka, just to name a few.
“They are incredibly consistent and of great quality,” explains Mr Loh. “Some of their best are right up there with what Scotch can offer.”
“Being on the sweet, mellow end of the spectrum is key to its rise,” says Timothy Ng, founder of Spirit & Penance, a distributor of Australian whiskies and spirits in Singapore. “The flavours are easily accepted even by people who are not yet inducted into the world of whisky.”
“The Japanese are also very proud of their natural water – for good reason. Couple that with the four season climate for maturation and you’ll get a different interaction with oak barrels (as compared to Scotland),” adds Vincent Hong, managing director of Barworks Wine & Spirits Pte Ltd.
BEFORE THE SHORTAGE
What’s surprising is how recently the world developed a raging thirst for Japanese whisky – four years to be exact.
“Jim Murray (the English whisky critic) announced the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as Whisky of the Year for 2015, giving it 97.5 points out of 100. It attracted huge publicity and drove interest on not just that bottling but Japanese whisky more broadly,” explains Matthew FergussonStewart, chief marketing officer of TSH Corporation Limited that’s behind whiskyfocused Quaich Bar (at South Beach and Waterfront Plaza).
The closest it came to becoming a global phenomenon before this was in 2003, when Suntory’s Hibiki 17 Year Old made an appearance alongside Bill Murray in the movie Lost in Translation.
IWSR, a company that measures beverage alcohol data based on local market insights and analysis, noted in its Global Trends Report in 2017 that Japanese whisky saw an exponential growth of 72.1 per cent in 2016 in the US alone. The same year, measured volume increased by a further 7.7 per cent from 2016, reaching a total of 13.3 million nine-litre cases and beating out fellow contender, Irish whisky, which came in at 8.1 million cases.
All this acclaim came at a cost as it became increasingly difficult to get a taste of Japan’s liquid gold.
As of January 2019, whisky lovers bid farewell to the Nikka 12 Years Old and Suntory Kakubin White Label. Suntory announced back in May 2018 that they would cease sales of Hakushu 12 Year Old and Hibiki 17 Year Old, while Kirin just sent out its last shipment of Fuji Sanroku Tarujuku 50° in March. Other fallen soldiers include aged expressions from Yoichi and Miyagikyo under the Nikka brand.
Prices have rocketed to stratospheric levels, as speculators and investors flip bottles on trading sites and auctions, laments Arun Prashant, a veteran in Singapore’s whisky scene and co-owner of The Swan Song.
Adding fuel to the fire, he adds that older vintages are going to finish at some point and, consequently, are priced highly.
Supply is clearly not meeting demand. Aging whisky takes time and there just isn’t much aged stock lying around. When a whisky labels itself as 17 years old, the youngest in the blend would take at least 17 years to be ready.
“Whisky, particularly those being aged for 10 or more years, were not produced in sufficient volume to sustain the new markets we see emerging today,” says Mr Prashant.
Japan’s history with the spirit explains the shortage.
While the industry boomed during the 1970s and early 1980s, it declined following the availability of imported whisky from Scotland. The final nail in the coffin came when the Scotch whisky industry won a World Trade Organisation ruling that eliminated taxes on foreign spirits in 1996. Locally produced whisky fell out of favour due to higher prices. It didn’t help that it transpired during Japan’s economic stagnation (dubbed the lost decade). Distilleries slowed down production, or, worst, shuttered its doors.
IS THE SHORTAGE FOR REAL?
Before you head off, scrambling for the last drops of a Yamazaki 25 Year Old, hear this: experts are weighing in with a unanimous ‘No’ when asked if there was indeed a shortage of Japanese whisky.
“The shortage is largely around aged whiskies. Increased supplies of non-age statement (NAS) whisky can be on the shelf within three years of deciding to increase production,” says Mr Fergusson-Stewart.
That seems to be the strategy of many distilleries.
Nikka, for example, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Miyagikyo Distillery with two NAS single malts containing whisky distilled from the 1960s to 2000s, while Suntory launches Ao, a blend featuring liquids from the five largest whisky-making regions across the globe.
Currently, Japan has a total of 23 distilleries; some new, some coming out of hibernation. Artisanal distilleries such as Akkeshi, Mars Shinshu and Wakatsuru Saburomaru, are upping their game in Asia (including Singapore) market with NAS releases as well.
The only challenge for NAS? The larger public is still sold on the idea that the older a whisky is, the better the quality
“Arguments for and against age statements rage ad-infinitum,” shrugs Mr Prashant.
While the general consensus is that age statements are important (time spent in the cask rounds out the harsher elements of a new make spirit), Mr Prashant’s colleague Fong Chan Teng says that sometimes too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. “There’s a tendency to be overly oaky or have a tannic aftertaste.” In his experience, some of the best are between 12 to 20 years old, with some as young as eight.
NEW AGE STATEMENTS
Yo Tang, international brand manager for Japanese whisky & gin, Beam Suntory, agrees. Experience has shown him that age is not the only indicator of a quality pour. Every barrel ages differently; some reaching their peak flavour at 30, some at five years.
So, why this preconceived notion that the bigger the age statement, the better the whisky?
Turns out it was marketing.
Mr Fergusson-Stewart put it best. “The industry has flip-flopped on the messaging. Back in the 80s, the whisky industry was in a slump. Many distilleries, particularly Scotch, had high levels of stock that continued to age. It suited them to stress the importance of age to fetch higher prices for the said stock. Today, stocks are lower. It makes more sense to drive attention away from the age, and draw focus on the cask and flavour.”
Making flavour the focal point has opened up the concept of blends to many. “By removing an age statement from a label, it allows us to use these truly high quality whiskies which have peaked at, say, five years, to produce a refined yet complex final product,” explains Mr Tang.
For those still yearning for a taste of Japanese whisky, pre-crisis, Singapore is home to many bars that stock a decent amount of Japanese whiskies. This includes pioneers such as Auld Alliance, La Maison du Whisky, Quaich Bar and La Terre. Collectors are also turning their stash into a booming business, like The Swan Song, which, as the name suggests, feature bottles that have been meticulously sourced and is the only (or at most a few more) bottle available. The Writing Club, likewise, is owner Tan Soo San’s personal collection.
Another way is to head straight to Japan for the famed Chichibu Whisky Festival or, if you’re really lucky, you might well find the elusive Karuizawa in a random bar. Or there are online auction sites, such as whiskyauctioneer.com..
The shortage, or crisis for dramatic effect, is affecting but a small part of the Japanese whisky pool. Singapore’s whisky drinkers are on the rise and, chances are, newcomers would have a better time now. Artisan distillers are now releasing bottlings beyond the domestic market. If anything, consumers now have an array of options that, hopefully, won’t cost an arm and an leg.
With a name like Sexy Fish, you probably won’t expect that this swanky London restaurant and bar has more than 400 bottles of Japanese whiskies in their repertoire. It’s well worth sifting through the lengthy menu and waiting an additional 10 minutes for a handcarved ice ball to go along with some of their rarer finds.
Don’t look down on the simple highball. Suntory’s campaign featuring their Kakubin whisky brought Japanese whisky back in vogue for its domestic market in 2008.
Ever wondered what the first whisky distilled in Hiroshima is like? You’ll have to wait. Master distiller Taihei Yamamoto of Sakurao Distillery offers a glimpse of his expertise through his gins in the meantime.
Mark your calendar for the next Chichibu Whisky Matsuri. Its sixth edition on 17 February 2019 allowed samplings of pre-aged and prereleases spirits as well as limited editions.
The legendary Karuizawa has made the most expensive Japanese whisky ever sold. 296 bottles, including a single 52-Year-Old Karuizawa 1960, fetched £770,000 during an online auction held by Whisky Auctioneer.
Whiskey or whisky? It’s whisky for the Japanese, who pride themselves on following Scottish traditions (despite heavy American influence) right down to the spelling.
These oft-overlooked distilleries are giving the big names a run for their money
MARS SHINSHU DISTILLERY
Mention the origin of Japanese whisky and you'd hear the name Kiichiro Iwai. One of Japan's whisky pioneers, we have him to thank for Masataka Taketsuru, who started Yamazaki Distillery and Nikka Whisky. It was he who sent Taketsuru on the momentous journey to Scotland, after all.
But that's not his only claim to fame. Iwai helped establish Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd's Mars Shinshu Distillery in 1960, designing copper pot stills based on Taketsuru's notes from Scotland. The design continues to be used today.
The popularity of its whisky goes beyond its rich history. Its location in the central Japanese Alps, at the base of Mount Komagatake, gives it unadulterated access to melted snow that's naturally filtered by granite. The frigid temperatures at 798 metres above sea level (as low as -15°C in winter) also greatly influence the maturation process.
Distillery manager Koki Takehira now helms the distillery, following its reopening in 2011. Awards have started piling up. The Mars Maltage 3+25, 28 Years Old was named the world's best blended malt whisky by 2013's World Whiskies Award.
Now, the distillery has expanded. November 2016 saw the launch of Mars Tsunuki Distillery for producing richer, heavier malts with hints of salt to create new blends. They also own three aging warehouses in Shinshu, Tsunuki and Yakushima, where blends will spend time in one or more.
Named after Kiichiro Iwai, Iwai Tradition is a malt-driven blend bringing the pioneer's vision to the 21st century. It's aged in a combination of bourbon, sherry and wine casks, bringing layers of caramel, wildflower honey, cloves and cherries to the palate. A hint of peat finely laces the honey finish. This is a bottle ideal for drinking on its own.
SINGLE MALT KOMAGATAKE LIMITED EDITION 2018
Matured in American white oak and bourbon casks for a minimum of three years solely at Mars Shinshu Distillery, it makes for an outstanding entry-level pour. The charming layers of white flowers, pears and citrus are accentuated by a discreet smoke in the background. The annual release is limited to 10,000 bottles with stocks running out. The coming months will see the 2019 edition and, with the 2018 being this good, there's a lot to look forward to.
Mars Whisky is available at bars including Anti:Dote, Neon Pigeon, The Winery Tapas bar and Wheeler's Estate.
Japan's loose whisky regulations allow for the import of Scotland-produced whisky for use in their blends. Tomatin, one of the largest distilleries in the Highlands, is known to provide much of its supply to do so. It also comes as no surprise that it is the first fully Japanese owned distillery. Takara Shuzo Ltd and Okura & Co. bought over the distillery in 1986. It is now owned solely by the former following a buyout.
The distillery, formerly known as The Tomatin Spey District Distillery Ltd. opened at the peak of the Victorian whisky boom, circa 1897. Despite initial difficulties, leading to its closure in 1906, new management revived the distillery and jump-started its dramatic expansion from just two stills to a total of 23. That means a whopping 12 million litres of whisky per year.
TOMATIN 18 YEAR OLD OLOROSO SHERRY CASK
Fans of fruity, floral pours will enjoy this award-winning expression. Matured in traditional oak and finished in first-fill Oloroso Sherry butts for up to three years, it stands as an excellent introduction to mature whiskies. It invites you in for a sip with its honeyed nose and impresses with layers of dried fruits, spice, vanilla and oak.
Tomatin is available at Quaich Bar and Quaich Bar South Beach.
In terms of flavour profile, Australian whisky comes close to Japanese. One name to look out for is Cameron Syme, who set up the Great Southern Distilling Company in 2004. The former lawyer dedicated 16 years to researching, including working for The Godfather of Tasmanian Whisky Bill Lark, and getting certified. It took him another 12 years to perfect the distilling process - to great results.
Albany-based Limeburners whisky quickly rose to the top and was named in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible as the 2018 Best Whisky in the Southern Hemisphere. Syme himself also won the honor of 2019's Australian Distiller of the Year from UK Whisky Magazine Icons of Whisky.
All its ingredients are sourced from Australia. Water from Albany, grains from the Great Southern region and peat, hand collected from the Valley of the Giants. The latter is supposedly made of tingle trees, mallee and gum trees, giving it a distinct flavour you won't find in a Scotch. And it seems Syme is the only one with access to it for now.
SHERRY CASK SINGLE MALT
Australian whisky is described as 'light yet flavorful' and the Sherry Cask Single Malt is no different. Matured in second-fill bourbon barrels and finished in Australian sherry casks, you get a warming spice and fruit notes on first taste. A splash of water unveils a crescendo of malted barley, vanilla, raisins and buttery caramel. It continues to impress with its long, velvety finish.
Limeburners Distillery is available online at Spirit & Penance.