Japanese whisky: On a High

Win-win situation

What it all adds up to is the fact that Japan is in a win-win situation with two very different but parallel whisky markets to service. With demand for whisky worldwide such that prices are rising for it across the board, Japanese entry-level whiskies – never cheap – don’t stand out so dramatically any more. And at the high end, the super-premium market rates Japan’s whisky up there with Scotch and ahead of other whisky markets. Some whiskies, such as Karuizawa, have taken on almost mythical status.

“The end of Karuizawa is imminent,” says Marcin Miller. “There will be none left in two to three years. Every time you have a glass of it you are drinking irreplaceable Japanese liquid history. Consumers are learning this and want to have the experience before it is too late. I daresay some people are buying bottles to sell later.

“But Chichibu is Japan’s only craft distillery and the whisky maker, Ichiro Akuto, perhaps illustrates that, with drive, energy, determination and passion, it is possible to build your own distillery and win plaudits worldwide. His attention to detail epitomises all the clichés about Japanese meticulousness in the search of perfection.”

While Japanese whisky has a certain amount of novelty value, even now and despite its 90-odd year history, it is no longer the only curio in the whisky marketplace – not by a long shot. 

Whisky is appearing from places as diverse as France, Italy, Argentina and Australia and even Taiwan has a highly successful and impressive distillery in Kavalan. But the Japanese producers welcome the new boys, believing that anything that drives the world of whisky will benefit them.

“Competition is good,” says Keita Minari. “Anything that grows the category and excites the consumer about whisky is positive and should be welcomed.”

Marcin Miller points out that many of the new producers are making whisky that is very different in style to Scottish and Japanese whisky and aren’t necessarily competing directly with it.

“In some ways the recent success of Japanese whisky in terms of reputation will have encouraged fanatics the world over to begin distilling whisky,” he says. 

“Japanese whisky, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the distiller, is very much based on the Scotch whisky model. Producers around the world are not making Scotch but creating something different, often with local ingredients. Will Japanese whisky see Mexican single malt as a threat? It’s doubtful.”

Just the beginning

Despite the many years of experience behind them, you sense that the Japanese whisky companies think that their journey is only now starting. Nikka and Suntory both have new product developments lined up for 2014, and Chichibu will be launched as a five-year-old single malt whisky next year. 

Then there’s the opportunity to ‘cross pollinate’ with other whiskies. Suntory, for instance, owns Morrison Bowmore and in Scotland at the moment there are ex-Yamazaki casks, made from the distinctive Japanese oak Mizunara, which have been filled with Bowmore. Exciting stuff.

As a result all the main players expect the country’s whisky to go from strength to strength.

“At the moment all things Japanese are considered exceptionally cool, and we have seen an explosion of Japanese culture in lots of places,” says Keita Minari. People have come to understand how beautifully and precisely Japanese things are made and they understand the quality of Japanese products. Japanese whisky is riding high as a result, and enjoying the trend.”

Marcin Miller agrees. “These are exciting times,” he says. “Our whiskies are not cheap but the market is rampant. The best whisky I tasted this year was not one of mine but it was Japanese – a 1988 single cask Yoichi bottled for the European market. That makes me optimistic for the category in the future.”