Thursday 12 August 2021

What is "Japanese Whisky" these days?

If you go back 10 or so years, the term "Japanese whisky" generally meant (to most whisky drinkers) Yamazaki or Hibiki. Maybe for some well-versed drinkers, Miyagikyo, Mars Komagatake or Yoichi. Hardcore enthusiasts were probably aware of whiskies like Hanyu and Karuizawa, but they certainly weren't known outside of a core group of enthusiasts.

Back then, these whiskies were all relatively accessible and comparatively well-priced (yes even the Karuizawas). More or less every Dan Murphy's stocked Yamazaki 12 (at well under $100AUD/bottle), and almost every decent Japanese bottle shop (and even Japan's airports) stocked age-statement Suntory and Nikka whiskies at incredibly fair prices. You could walk into most (good) Japanese whisky bars and try a selection of Ichiro's Malt Cards Series for less than you'd pay for a dram of Lagavulin 16 today.

Then in 2015 a man in a hat said the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 was the best whisky in the world, and everyone lost their mind. Now sure, this was far from the first award ever given to a Japanese whisky (Hibiki 21 for example had won "World's Best Blended Whisky", at the arguably much-more-relevant World Whiskies Awards, several times before 2015), but it did seem to be the catalyst for a barrage of hype, price hikes and scarce availability that continues today.

Some might say the hatted man simply shone a brighter light on what was already an incredibly high quality spirit (and they'd be right), but however you look at it, the hype started building, and casualties followed. In the coming years, Nikka discontinued their beloved age statement single malts (and later, many of their much-loved blends), Suntory temporarily halted favourites like Hibiki 17 and Hakushu 12, and the prices of pretty much all remaining Suntory and Nikka age statement (and NAS for that matter) whiskies skyrocketed. 

...and that's not even mentioning whisky from closed Japanese distilleries (to see how things are going there, just check out these auction prices of a "full deck" of Ichiro's Malt Cards Series from 2015, 2019 and 2020 respectively).

After a few years came the the wave of what many have termed "fake Japanese Whiskies" - those which took advantage of loose legislation in Japan which meant that producers could (and still can, for now) bottle whisky made from 100% imported spirit such as Scotch or Canadian whisky, and sell it as "Japanese Whisky" domestically and around the world. 

Again, the use of non-Japanese distilled spirit isn't a new thing. Nikka for example had been thought to be using Ben Nevis (which they own) in their hugely popular "Nikka from the Barrel", for years, but the rise in Japanese whisky popularity in the past 5 years has seen a big increase in other overpriced, opaque/ambiguous bottlings calling themselves "Japanese", often with samurai or other imagery, with absolutely no guarantee as to where the spirit originated. 

(For the record, I have no problem with the practice of imported spirit being bottled and sold by Japanese companies, and companies like Nikka who are willingly being transparent about the issue should be applauded. My issue is with those being deliberately deceptive, trying to "fool" their customers into thinking the whisky was distilled in Japan when it wasn't.)

More recently though, we've seen a ray of hope emerge - "proper" Japanese whisky from new or newly-expanded distilleries/brands, producing unique, Japanese-distilled spirit, and in the last few years (and especially the last 12 months), we've seen the first whisky releases from many of these start to emerge.

With thanks to our friends at AFTrade Hong Kong, we're going to feature a few of these whiskies over the coming week, with detailed tasting notes and some background into each distillery. Specifically, we'll be trying:
(Links to the articles will be added as they're posted)

We hope these posts give you some insight into these new, exciting Japanese distilleries and a little taste of things to come from Japanese whisky in the future. If you have any thoughts of your own on these whiskies (or the Japanese whisky scene in general) please leave them in the comments below!


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