Japanese whisky: On a High

If there is a difference it’s that Japan isn’t scared of big, bold flavours and both with sherry wood and bourbon barrel-matured the whisky is sometimes the oral equivalent of a sledgehammer. Not for the faint-hearted.

At the older ages, a Japanese taste comes to the fore. It’s sort of mushroomy and highly distinctive, and for many it’s the holy grail in whisky drinking.

Having been caught out by the increase in world demand once, the producers don’t intend for it to happen again and both the major companies are investing in their distilleries to ensure Japan meets the demand for its whiskies going forward. 

“In order to meet the long-term demand and prepare for the further expansion in the Japanese and global markets, Suntory will be investing approximately five billion yen – $50m – this year and in 2014 to increase productivity at the Yamazaki Distillery and Ohmi Ageing Cellars,” says Keita Minari, Suntory’s European brand manager.

“These are good times for Japanese whisky. It is well respected, connoisseurs love it, sales are up in the UK and we’re constantly winning awards for our luxury expressions.”

In the UK Japan has had a patchy history, but sales are booming elsewhere. America and France are key markets, and the Far East is also gaining in importance.

“Our whiskies do well in Japan of course,” says Marcin Miller. “But France is important, too. The French have long appreciated ‘La Japonisme’  and the strong mutual respect has resulted in staggering success for Karuizawa and Chichibu, thanks to (French retailer) La Maison du Whisky. Scandinavia appreciates top-quality whisky and we are exporting our first shipment to the States.

“But Taiwan is our biggest market. It seems that they simply cannot get enough old, sherry matured single malt whisky.”

Keita Minari agrees. “Our whiskies sell strongly in the US and France, which are our key export markets,” he says. “We have a foothold in the UK market and our sales are growing in China and Taiwan. It seems the Highball phenomenon has spread across the Far East.”

Ah, the Highball phenomenon. If Japanese whisky has struggled to keep up with demand at the high premium end of the market, meeting demand for the entry-level malts has been just as tough. A few years ago serving Yamazaki in a long glass with a round ice ball and soda water became fashionable among young and affluent Japanese whisky drinkers – a group who had traditionally eschewed home-produced whisky for Scotch.

Such was the demand that there were stories Suntory was recalling younger expressions of Yamazaki from export markets to meet the demand at home.

“Whisky drinkers in Japan were traditionally male and relatively old,” says Keita Minari. “The Highball helped to engage a new generation of whisky drinkers. Younger drinkers found whisky intimidating so Suntory helped to develop a new generation of Highball bars where whisky could be sold as an alternative to beer. Sales have been up more than 10% a year for the past three years, proving the new strategy is working and is showing no signs of stopping.”