Bottles do not last long on store shelves. Shipments are limited. Connoisseurs and curious drinkers grab what they can. The cost to purchase can rise well beyond the suggested retail price.
This may sound like a description of the difficulty in acquiring Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons, whose quality and scarcity have lifted the brand into legendary (and expensive) status, but it’s not. The entire Japanese whisky category currently experiences the same challenges. Is this good for the category? And how did we get here?
Numerous factors are behind the current Japanese whisky craze. Distillers set aside a good portion of their output for domestic markets, which leaves less juice for the rest of the world. However, America was not always receiving large allocations, since the category’s first big push was carefully controlled.
“By only exporting a limited quantity to the United States in the early 2000s, the Japanese were able to hook a niche group of whiskey drinkers,” explains Erin Robertie, Liquor Department Manager of Hazel’s Beverage World, a 35,000-square foot retail store in Boulder, Colorado. “Almost a novelty, Japanese malts entered the market as something different. Something a little weird.”
In this way, connoisseurs were encouraged to set the reputation of Japanese whisky. They liked what they drank. Japanese whisky gained status among American consumers as an approachable, nuanced alternative to Scotch.
Demand increased. Then, when Suntory whiskies won a slew of global awards between 2010 and 2012, demand exploded.
“The growth has been unprecedented,” says Beam Suntory Brand Ambassador Johnnie Mundell. “One day we’ll look back at this period and say that this really was a unique time and place. I’ve never seen anything like this in whisky.”
Japanese whiskies have leveraged this sudden and immense popularity to expand influence far beyond their home country.
“Their presence in the industry is catapulting them to the forefront of world whiskey,” Robertie says. “When Suntory purchased Jim Beam, Japanese whisky became a huge player in the international market.”
Tracking down Japanese whisky has become a difficult task.
“The Yamazakis and all older extensions of Nikka are incredibly hard to find,” Robertie says. “In our state, all of Suntory’s whiskies are allocated, so we receive a case or two of non-age statements or Hibiki 12-year every few months.”
“The older age statements (Taketsuru 17, 21, 25, Miyagikyo 12, and Yoichi 15) are white whales,” she adds. “Maybe it’s out there, but we can’t get any.”
“There were steps taken a few years ago, but production remains at capacity,” Mundell says. “The timeline for creating Japanese whisky is so massive. And we’re living in a world that deals so much with immediacy that this timeline can seem a bit off. But nothing can be done, short of inventing a time machine.”
Part of this owes to the painstaking methods of making Japanese whisky. Blending is the predominant style. The Japanese assemble whiskies the same way Germans piece together luxury automobiles.
Hibiki’s new Harmony blend is a mix of more than ten malt and grain whiskies. The ingredients range from sweet to bold to peaty. Japanese whiskies are defined by this balance of different flavors, which is attainable only with the proper time and effort.
There may be ways, however, to expedite the process. Robertie believes the lack of an age statement on Harmony is a sign of quickened production.
“By switching to non-age statement extensions, companies are able to produce more whisky faster without running out of supply,” she says.
It would be tough today to launch Japanese whisky in America as a connoisseur’s secret. Consumers post so much onto social media that new, interesting products do not remain unknown for long. This, coupled with the craft cocktail movement, has fueled Japanese whisky’s rise from niche
product to popular rarity.
“The way we communicate is so different now. A person can now post a photo from a Tokyo bar and have it read immediately across the rest of the world,” Mundell says.
Robertie sees similarities between Japanese whisky and the most-desired Bourbons.
“Ten years ago, it was easy to walk into any liquor store and find Pappy sitting on the shelf. These days, the secondary market dominates,” she explains. “I could see this same trend with the Japanese, especially since they hit the market strong, lasted for a few years, and are now starting to pull back.”
“It won’t be as insane as hunting for the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection,” she adds, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if Japanese whisky becomes as rare and scarce.”
Although this creates a seller’s market, Mundell remains skeptical. “It’s not to anybody’s benefit,” he says. “There’s a general statement in the industry: ‘If you see Japanese whisky, buy it.’ People want to experience this whisky. If they can’t find it, then that’s a bad thing.”
Nevertheless, responsible stock management must come first, Mundell says, along with the Japanese tradition of crafting the best whisky possible. Time is necessary to maintain the integrity of high standards, while also innovating for the next generation of spirits.
Once again, Hibiki’s Harmony serves as a symbol for the category’s future. “It was produced for a many reasons,” Mundell explains, “one of which was that we wanted to provide people with something that they would be able to drink and find at a reasonable price point.”
Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Cheers Magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @kswartzz.