Japanese whisky: Big fish, bigger pond

Both Suntory and Nikka own two distilleries – but at Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery the company makes 70 styles of malt spirit by using different yeasts, different stills and still combinations, and by using an assortment of woods.

The attention to detail and quality has benefited the industry massively, but perhaps more importantly it has provided the leading two players the platform to create a range of different whisky styles and to offer the whisky lover beautifully crafted premium malts and, particularly in the case of Suntory’s Hibiki 21 Year Old, world class blends.

With all the components in place, then, Japanese whisky appeared to be ideally placed to advance from a position of strength and to establish itself alongside leading scotch and Irish brands. And yet that doesn’t seem to have happened. Indeed, until a flurry of new releases this autumn, everything seemed to go a little quiet on the Japanese whisky front, particularly with Suntory. 

That silence, which followed the dreadful earthquake and tsunami which almost literally knocked the country off course, coincidentally came just as other world whiskies were turning heads, and in particular two from the east – the releases from Amrut in India and Kavalan in Taiwan. So have circumstances conspired to push Japan off the world whisky throne?

Not according to Nikka, which adamantly claims that sales for its whiskies have been unaffected either by domestic disasters or international competition.

“We have not noticed any change,” said a spokesman for the company. “Interest is in fact higher than ever for Nikka whisky, and we are looking forward to continued growth, especially for Nikka FTB, Yoichi and Taketsuru.”

Suntory agrees that the domestic situation has had little negative effect on its business but, unlike Nikka, it admits that the silence is in part due to stock problems. In fact, says the company, it’s been a victim of its own success. It simply didn’t predict the slew of awards 20 years ago and therefore failed to predict the massive demand for its aged malts. As a result it hasn’t got much old whisky left so there has been little point in promoting and marketing brands which were happily selling out by themselves.

Thinly stretched

Suntory brand manager Zoran Peric says that what started as a trickle of interest from whisky judges and experts became a stream in markets such as the UK first and became a flood when countries in Europe started to get interested. Rather than slacking off, the rise and rise of Japanese whisky has gone on unabated, but is being stretched more thinly across a growing number of markets. He dismisses out of hand the threat from the likes of Kavalan and Amrut.

“The appeal of Japanese whisky worldwide is at a high point and as a result all Suntory markets are on allocation,” he says. “Consumer demand for Suntory brands is growing across Europe, particularly in countries such as the UK, France, Sweden and Germany. This demand has been growing since the early years of the decade when our whiskies started to win awards for quality. Since then Suntory has won more than 60 awards.

“The arrival of whiskies into the market place from other parts of the world shows the global popularity of whisky. There is no indication that the popularity of Suntory whiskies, or indeed Japanese whiskies in general is slowing.”