As recently as two decades ago, Japanese whiskies were mainly enjoyed by, well, the Japanese. Fast-forward to some critical nods in the whisky awards world — highlighted by Whisky Magazine naming Nikka’s 10-Year Yoichi as its “2001 Best of the Best” and Suntory’s Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 being named “The World’s Best Whisky” by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in 2015 — and Japanese spirits have become a worldwide phenomenon representing 5% of worldwide whisky sales. This rapid upsurge has now led to a global shortage. Top shelf manufacturer Suntory recently announced that it is going to be halting sales of its flagship Hibiki 17 and Hakushu 12. (Highly valued by collectors and whisky snobs, Hibiki 17 became famous when Bill Murray’s Lost In Translation character was hired by a Japanese firm to do a marketing ad for the drink). Why? It’s simple: The demand is far exceeding the supply of the whisky, and distillers aren’t able to keep up, such as with Nikka who is holding off on entering new markets. The roots of the current situation date back to the 1980s, when production was lowered following a drop in consumer demand, leading to the current lack of available stock for aged whisky. Filling the gap are some younger whiskies with no age statement that makes choosing a bottle a bit of a guessing game. Some are sublime, such as Nikka Coffey Grain, while there are many overpriced duds. Takeshi Niinami, CEO of Suntory Holdings, said in 2016 it would take an estimated 10 years to recover whisky stocks, so there’s an eventual end to the crisis. In the meantime, expect prices to keep rising…and sales records to keep breaking for particularly notable bottles.
While worldwide whisky connoisseurs have only recently become captivated with whiskies from Japan, its history dates back more than a century to 1918. That’s when Japanese chemist Masataka Taketsuru journeyed to Scotland to learn the trade. After apprenticing at several distilleries, he returned to Japan as a master distiller. Shinjiro Torii (his name is the basis of the company name Suntory) provided the funds for Taketsuru to start a Scottish-style distillery in Japan. They broke ground on the Yamazaki distillery in 1923, first distilled in 1924, and released their inaugural whisky in 1929. A decade later, Taketsuru left Suntory and started Nikka, releasing their first whisky in 1940. Thus Taketsuru is the founder of the two great rivals in Japanese whisky today.