Going underground

“Also, at some point, people are going to realise that there’s only so much alcohol one can drink. I know people now who have more Japanese whisky at home than their whole family would be able to drink, even if they polished off a bottle a day. I think that, yes, people are mesmerised by this thing called whisky, but reality does have a habit of sneaking up on us sooner or later… and the reality is it’s a drink, and it only acquires meaning in the process of its consumption, that is to say, its disappearance.”

Andy Simpson, founder of whisky investment broker Rare Whisky 101, agrees, and urges caution. “The demand for Japanese whisky for a while was almost like panic buying,”  he says. “We’re talking mainly about Karuizawa and for a while it was going up at ridiculous rates. There was a time in the middle of 2015 when prices may have peaked. The truth is, when you get to a certain price it becomes unsustainable and Japanese whisky may be in that category. You can’t charge people hundreds of dollars a dram. If you came to me with thousands of dollars to buy Japanese whisky I would argue that it might not be the best idea.”

So is it the beginning of the end of Japanese whisky’s brief reign at the top of the spirits world? Almost certainly not. True, the golden period of widely available high-quality aged Japanese whiskies is in the past. But that said, undoubtedly Suntory and Nikka are working flat out making new whisky spirit, the country’s whisky makers have a reputation for thoroughness and innovation, and there are some signs of new distilleries emerging, though it is notoriously difficult to set up a distilling venture in Japan.

One person who has overcome the barriers is Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery. The distillery’s whiskies are still very young, but they are widely respected for their high quality. He hopes others will follow.

“New distilleries are a good thing,” he says. “It’s great that so many people started having an interest in whisky and we hope it goes well so can all build a strong Japanese brand.

“What we are hoping for from the new distilleries is quality. Because of that, we are happy to help them. We have to ensure the Japanese brand is a quality brand. I believe the future is bright. The reputation of Japanese whisky is good now but it doesn’t mean we should stop our search for better quality. We are still working hard for the future generations – that’s how the whisky business should be.”

Most people associated with Japanese whisky agree that while the golden period has passed, a new chapter is just starting. But nobody’s quite sure what will happen next.

“I have given up trying to predict the future of Japanese whisky,” says Van Eycken. “To anyone who does I say ‘where was your crystal ball when you could drive a van to Karuizawa distillery and buy cases and cases of vintage whisky for peanuts?’”


Chris Bunting, author of Drinking Japan, is optimistic about the future. “One hopelessly vague prediction I would hazard is that at the same point in the short to medium future we are going to see a quantity and quality of Japanese whisky that will finally establish it as a significant export product,” he says. “Those whiskies are being matured now by highly sophisticated companies that are capable of seeing a major commercial opportunity, and have clearly demonstrated their ability to make world-class whiskies.”

Shinji Fukuyo, master blender for Japan’s biggest whisky producer Suntory agrees, and argues that Japanese whisky has come too far not to take advantage of its world-wide reputation. “For many years we’ve worked to improve the quality of our products for Japanese consumers, and now feel that those results are being recognised around the world,” he says.

“Hibiki Japanese Harmony was released to help satisfy the global thirst for Japanese whisky, now and in the future. It was well received and its popularity continues to grow. We are determined to continue innovating in the whisky world, developing great-tasting expressions.

“I believe the increase in the number of distilleries in Japan can only be a good thing. I hope that through friendly rivalry we can produce high-quality whiskies that promote a reputation of Japanese whisky.”