One for theroad
Surging popularity has seen prices for Japan’s top whiskies skyrocket—and their availability plummet. Christopher Dewolf heads to Japan to find out why
Surging popularity has seen prices for Japan’s top whiskies skyrocket—and their availability plummete
Adamp, woody scent lingers in the air as we ascend in the lift. “It smells like a forest,” I remark. “A whisky forest,” says my guide, a soft-spoken man named Makoto Sumita. The doors open and it becomes clear what he means. There are stacks of casks, thousands of them, stamped with dates and filled with liquid that will be blended, bottled and sold around the world at increasingly high prices. I close my eyes and inhale deeply: the air is sweet and vaguely fruity. I’m breathing evaporated whisky. “That’s the angel’s share,” says Sumita. “We lose 3 per cent per year.”
We are in one of the warehouses of the Suntory Yamazaki distillery, the oldest whisky distillery in Japan and the producer of some of the world’s most acclaimed single malts. Sumita has been a manager here for decades and he’s never seen it so busy. “Because whisky sales are so good, the distillery is working at more than 100 per cent.”
And it’s no wonder. In the past 15 years, Japanese distillers have racked up some of the world’s top awards—the most recent from Jim Murray, who declared the 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask Single Malt to be the world’s best whisky in this year’s edition of his Whisky Bible. From high-rise bars in Hong Kong to basement dens in Paris, Japanese whisky has become
the connoisseur’s choice, a sought-after libation whose infusion of Scottish technique into a Japanese milieu has beguiled a new generation of drinkers.
I’ve long been a craft beer enthusiast, but malt is malt—and my brief forays into the world of Japanese whisky left me intrigued. So I flew to Japan to find out the secrets behind its cherished export. The trip began auspiciously as I walked into my suite at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, where I found two small bottles of Hibiki 17 and Hakushu single malt awaiting me with a bucket of ice. It wasn’t until later that food and beverage director Thomas Combescot-lepère broke the bad news. “You’ve come at an interesting time,” he says. “There’s no whisky left.”
It seems the surge of interest in Japanese whisky has taken producers by surprise, which has led them to ration bottles of their finest expressions. CombescotLepère says prices rose 40 per cent in April alone and it has become impossible for him to buy more than a few bottles of top-shelf whiskies, such as Hibiki 30, a fantastic blend of malt and grain from Suntory’s three distilleries.
“Normally we have 40 to 50 items of Japanese whisky,” says Shusaku Osawa, the manager of Liquors Hasegawa, which stocks about 800 kinds of Scotch, bourbon and other whiskies—but not much more than a dozen Japanese whiskies, now that demand has far outstripped supply.
To find out more about the shortage, I meet Belgian-born Stefan Van Eycken, chief editor of Nonjatta, an English-language Japanese whisky blog. He was such a fan of single malt that he did his PHD in Edinburgh “because it was close to whisky”—and it was there that he met his Japanese wife. “For so many years, whisky sales in Japan slumped. It was the whisky fans who kept things going,” he says. Enthusiasts were treated to single-cask bottlings, the liquid equivalent of a great writer’s unpublished manuscript; some even bought entire casks. Even as the whiskies began to win international awards, there was more than enough to go around.
Then came the highball. In 2008, Suntory began to promote whisky sodas as a lighter alternative to beer, and Japanese sales reversed their decline for the first time in nearly 20 years. International
acclaim continued to buoy the high end of the market. The trends converged this year when NHK broadcast the historical soap opera Massan, about the romance between Japanese whisky pioneer Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife, Rita Cowan. Japanese drinkers who had never paid much heed to their homegrown single malts suddenly took interest. “Now people fetishise it,” says Van Eycken. “It gets hard to open bottles because they are surrounded by this aura.”
To appreciate the history of Japanese whisky, you need to board a train to Yamazaki, a village in the hills between Kyoto and Osaka. This is where, in 1923, Shinjiro Torii embarked on the unlikely project of building a Scotch distillery in Japan. To make his concoction, Torii hired Taketsuru, the son of a sake brewer, who studied organic chemistry in Glasgow and earned his keep working at distilleries.
Their first product, released in 1929, was a flop. “People didn’t like it because it was too smoky,” says Sumita. Taketsuru left to start his own distillery in Yoichi, on Hokkaido, while Torii continued to experiment. He finally struck gold with Kakubin, a sweet, mellow blend that is still Japan’s top-selling whisky. Even today, peated whiskies are rare in Japan. “Blenders use a small amount [of peat]—it gives it a deep flavour but not any smoke,” says Sumita.
Of course, what truly sets Japanese whisky apart is Japan itself. When whisky emerges from the pot still, it is an aggressively fruity, clear spirit—moonshine, basically. Only after years in a wood barrel, subjected to the changes of season and the mysterious qualities of the wood itself, does something unique emerge. That becomes clear as Sumita sits me down and gives me samples of 12-year-old Yamazaki single malt. There’s one aged in Spanish sherry casks, which tastes of brown sugar and figs. Another, matured in casks made of Japanese mizunara— a kind of indigenous white oak—tastes altogether different: floral yet woody. “Japanese people say it reminds them of temple incense,” says Sumita.
In the pine forests 100 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, in Chichibu, Ichiro Akuto has built Japan’s first new whisky distillery since 1973. Unlike Yamazaki and Hakushu, which employ hundreds of people, this is an artisanal operation. Akuto has just one pair of pot stills and nine full-time staff. Asked why he set up in Chichibu, he says, “I was born here. It’s that simple.” But it’s more complicated than that. Akuto’s family began brewing sake in Chichibu nearly 400 years ago. In 1941, his grandfather founded the Hanyu distillery nearby. The declining fortunes of Japanese whisky in the 1990s led the family to sell the business, but the new owner wasn’t interested in buying any of the
whisky, so Akuto rescued the stock and hatched plans to start his own distillery.
Since opening in 2008, Akuto has released dozens of expressions based on the old Hanyu whisky and his younger Chichibu malts. He is relentlessly experimental, making use not only of the standard sherry casks and bourbon barrels, but also tequila barrels and Pedro Ximénez wine casks. First, Akuto drives me to a barley field whose grain he will soon malt and mill himself. “I feel it’s fruitier than imported barley,” he says. Akuto then takes me to his cooperage, where 88-year-old master craftsman Mitsuo Saito makes new casks out of American and Japanese oak. The first Japanese whisky to win a major international award—nikka’s 10-year-old Yoichi single malt, in 2001—had been aged in one of Saito’s casks. Two years ago, he decided to retire, so he is now training an apprentice. “Why go to all this trouble?” I ask Akuto. “It’s fun,” he says. “I really like whisky. You’d probably do the same if you’re a whisky enthusiast—try local barley, try your own cooperage. It’s interesting.”
It’s hard to say what Japanese whisky will be like in a decade or two. Rumours abound that some of the industry’s big dogs are planning to pull out of the single-malt business entirely, except for noage-statement expressions. “There’s not a lot of transparency,” says Van Eycken.
Indeed, the future might look a lot like Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery, which is set on the banks of the strikingly clear Nikkawa River outside Sendai. Opened by Taketsuru in 1969, Miyagikyo produces an excellent single malt with a light, spicy and faintly peaty flavour. These days, however, Nikka’s strength can be found in its blended whiskies, including the acclaimed Nikka From the Barrel, which make use of Miyagikyo’s two Coffey stills that produce a whisky more similar to bourbon than Scotch.
These kinds of blends will become more and more valuable to whisky producers, simply because they don’t need to spend as many years in the barrel. “Nobody could predict what would happen in 10 or 20 years,” says Onodera Akiko, my guide at Miyagikyo. “As a whisky company, we have to keep running our business, so we might have to reduce some of our expressions.” It could be years before well-aged Japanese single malts are once again available in abundance—from the big players, at least.
Back in Tokyo, I head to Zoetrope, a tiny bar with the world’s best selection of Japanese whisky; about 300 bottles are open at any given time. I start with a five-year-old sherry cask single malt from Akashi, a distillery near Osaka. It’s sweet but well-rounded, and surprisingly mature for its age. The same is true for Ichiro’s On the Way, the first bottling of a Chichibu single malt. Made from whisky aged for between three and five years in bourbon barrels and a mizunara cask, it is spicy and complex, with a kind of funky barnyard flavour I normally associate with Belgian beer.
I think back to something Akuto told me at his distillery. “When I started, I wanted to make a Chichibu single malt whisky,” he said. “Honestly speaking, I don’t know what it will be like. Nobody knows. In 10 years, 20 years, we’ll find out.”
BLENDS WILL BECOME MORE AND MORE VALUABLE TO WHISKY PRODUCERS, SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY DON’T NEED TO SPEND AS MANY YEARS IN THE BARREL
Suntory’s Hakushu facility in Hokuto is known as “the forest distillery” for its green surrounds Founded in 2008 by Ichiro Akuto, this is where the acclaimed Ichiro’s Malt is produced
Japan’s first commercial distillery was built in 1923 by Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii
Nikka’s distillery near Sendai was built in 1969 and features prime underground water filtered through a layer of peat
make it suntory time From left: Shinji Fukuyo, master blender at the Suntory Yamazaki distillery; the building nestles in a verdant hillside and is located between Kyoto and Osaka
crystal bliss Due to a surge of interest in Japanese whisky, Suntory’s 30-year-old expressions regularly fetch top dollar at auction
roll out the barrels The thousands of casks at the Suntory Yamazaki distillery leave the air sweet with the angel’s share