‘Must-have’ Japanese whiskey turns 100 as demand soars | Malay Mail

YAMAZAKI (Japan), July 18 ― The famous Yamazaki distillery marks its 100th anniversary this year with much to celebrate, as Japan’s acclaimed aged whiskey commands increasingly attractive prices due to growing demand. and chronic shortages.



Japan’s oldest distillery has sat at the foot of a mountain outside Kyoto since it was built by Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Yamazaki maker Suntory, who wanted to make a whiskey suited to Japanese tastes.

It was mainly foreign demand, along with the relative scarcity of the most desirable bottles aged for decades, that drove prices sky high.

A bottle of Yamazaki 55, with an official retail price of ¥3 million (RM93,879), sold for a whopping US$600,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York last year. That’s still short of the record US$795,000 set at a Hong Kong auction in 2020.

And in Japan’s upscale Ginza district, a more modest Yamazaki 18 with a manufacturer’s price of ¥32,000 ($220) sells for ¥120,000.

Suntory did not disclose production volumes but the distillery’s senior general manager Takahisa Fujii said it had increased significantly over the past 20 years.

The company has announced plans this year to pump 10 billion yen at its Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, but demand is outstripping capacity.

“We receive so many requests for our whiskey from customers all over the world, so we try to respond to them as best we can,” Fujii said.

The Yamazaki distillery welcomes dozens of visitors from Japan and abroad every day but those hoping to stock up on old varieties have been disappointed.

Peter Kaleta, a 35-year-old guest who runs a bar in Poland, was upset that he couldn’t buy one of his favorites.

It’s a “must-have” for whiskey bars, he added, calling the lack of aged varieties “kind of depressing”.

‘The boom is back’

Junpei Kusunoki, manager of Tokyo Whiskey Library, a bar in the elegant Omotesando district, is no stranger to the struggle for supply.

“The whiskey boom is back,” he told AFP.

“There is a quota in the Omotesando area, so it’s a war against competitors. We’re trying everything to get the” bottles.

The location of Yamazaki’s distillery is a world away from the Scottish terroir most associated with whiskey but Fujii says the site was chosen for the region’s famous waters.

Its fame dates back to the 16th century, when the Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu worked nearby.

“You can’t make good wine without good water,” Fujii said, adding that the humid and cloudy environment helps whiskey age.

The distillery’s unique range of copper stills in different shapes and sizes also contributes to the brand’s particular profile, he said.

Yamazaki’s layered and well-balanced flavors are considered a good match for Japanese cuisine, Fujii said.

There are now about 100 distilleries across Japan, according to whiskey critic Mamoru Tsuchiya, with a reputation for quality that helps boost the profile of its tipples.

The exorbitant prices were the result of “a shortage of whiskey at a time when demand from abroad has increased dramatically”, he said.

Today’s success belies a 20-year slowdown after domestic consumption peaked in 1983.

“Sales are falling every year,” said Nobuyuki Akiyama, head of Suntory’s whiskey marketing division, “…so the impact is big”.

‘Make it Suntory time’

Things only started to turn around in the early 2000s, when Nikka Whisky’s Yoichi 10 and Yamazaki 12 received prestigious international industry awards.

And 2003 saw Suntory’s Hibiki 17 play a starring role in the hit film “Lost in Translation”, featuring Bill Murray promoting the drink with the line: “For relaxing times, do this Suntory time.”

Domestic sales also recovered as international demand began to rise, thanks to the resurgence of highballs, a mix of whiskey and soda.

A 2015 television drama based on the life of Nikka Whiskey’s founder also helped drive renewed interest in the home.

The sudden increase came too quickly for companies that had to plan production decades in advance.

“We have Hibiki 30, for example, where we have to think about how many bottles we should make 30 years in the future,” Akiyama said, adding that it is “impossible” to predict the market in advance.

So far, sales look likely to keep growing, with exports rising to ¥56 billion last year, 14 times more than a decade earlier.

Judith Ly, a German visitor to the Yamazaki distillery, said she makes an exception for Japanese whiskey.

“I don’t normally drink whiskey, but I like the taste,” he said.

“Smooth. Easy to drink.” ― AFP

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