Japan Is Running Out Of Whisky

Photo: Nathan Bullivant (Flickr)

Today, Suntory announced officially that sales of the Hakushu 12-year-old single malt and the Hibiki 17-year-old blend would stop for the time being. The reason? Some of Japan's most beloved whisky releases are vanishing.

Yesterday, George Koutsakis at Forbes first reported that Hibiki 17 would no longer be on sale starting this September. Today, according to IT Media, Suntory made it official, adding that sales of Hakushu 12 are ending next month.

These are not the first Japanese whisky bottlings with age statements to no longer be offered. They probably won't be the last, either.

One of the great things about writing a book on Japanese whisky is that you have to drink it for research! However, as someone who's also a customer, it's depressing to see whiskies you love to vanish from shelves. Hibiki 17 is one of my favourites, striking a terrific balance between flavour, aroma, quality and price.

Screenshot: American Zoetrope

It's also what Bill Murray drank in Lost in Translation, for whatever that's worth.

So, how did we get here?

In 2014, Japan experienced a domestic whisky boom thanks to a TV drama about Nikka's founder and father of Japanese whisky Masataka Taketsuru. Since Taketsuru also helped set up the Yamazaki Distillery and later established Yoichi, the boom caused Nikka and Suntory whiskies to fly off the shelves. This came as Japanese whisky was increasingly recognised globally for its quality, being hailed as world class.

It was a perfect storm, and for a brief period, Japanese whisky makers must have been thrilled. Then, reality set in.

All of Nikka's single malts with age statements vanished. The Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts were revamped and only no age statement versions were released. Not listing an age statement allows whisky makers more freedom in how they put a release together because they can use a wider range of whiskies.

Even without the age statement, the youngest whisky in those single malts could be at least three years old, but there are also older whiskies to balance things out. Those older whiskies are vanishing.

The reason, of course, is that ten to fifteen years before that people weren't drinking much Japanese tipple. During the early '00s, the Japanese whisky business was bottoming out after decades of declining sales.

It was a knock on effect: whisky wasn't selling, so production slowed and less spirit was put in wood to mature. The result was less old whisky.

With the current demand, the only choice is for whisky makers to halt sales.

Unlike gin or vodka, whisky-making requires maturation, so it will be years until certainly releases become widely available again. No doubt, this is one reason why in the meantime Japanese distillers like Nikka have increasingly been releasing clear spirits.

Screenshot: Nikkei

In the meantime, Japanese whisky prices have been shooting up, as Nikkei pointed out earlier this month.

There have been positives. For example, Nikka's no-age-statement Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts are not only excellent but affordable. Well, at least right now. As of this minute.

Known for its ability to manage casks and stock, Suntory seemed like it would fair better against the onslaught of new Japanese whisky customers, which continued to grow around the world.

I've heard that Suntory is holding stock for the Olympics. But don't expect the draught to end anytime soon.

The Best Affordable Japanese Whisky You Can Buy

Image. Suntory, Nikka, Eigashima Shuzo, Photoshop by Luke Plunkett Japanese whisky sure can be expensive. While older bottlings can easily fetch thousands of dollars, or at the super-premium end, hundreds of thousands, there are Japanese whiskies that are both affordable and excellent.

Read more

In 2016, Suntory CEO Takeshi Niinami said Japanese whisky shortages might last as long as ten years.

Nikka, however, is bound to have a harder time, because the 2014 boom really cleaned out their maturation cellars. Since Nikka fires its coal-powered Yoichi pot stills by hand, increasing production is difficult. It could take Nikka even longer to recover from this sudden popularity spike.

According to IT Media, Suntory is planning on increasing production capacity, including expanding its maturation abilities. It's TBA as to when Hakushu 12 and Hibiki 17 will return. You have until September to snag any remaining bottles. Stock up now.


Comments

    Why is this a Kotaku article?

      Because Bashcraft wrote a book and likes to spruik it, just like Schreier likes to spruik his.

      Because people like me love games and whisky, and this is very sad news :(

      why not? Its interesting. I would never have seen it, if they havent done a story on it.

      Maybe enjoy things that arent about gaming, might broaden your mind a bit?

      From the US site's About page:
      Thank you for reading Kotaku, a news and opinion site about games and things serious gamers care about.I can see you aren't a serious gamer.

      sure Kotaku is a game related news subsidiary of Allure network, but if you break down the name Kotaku.

      Ko・子 = Child/Small
      otaku・オタク = Geek/Fan/Enthusiast

      Fits the bill. This is just a more in depth explanation of what Alex mentioned.

    Eh... give me a nice Islay like Lagavulin 16yo any day of the week. I'm not knocking Japanese whisky, but Scotland is and will forever be my true (whisky) love.

      I like a good whiskey but I do find some of the Scottish whiskeys a little too peaty for my taste. Despite my curiosity about why this is a Kotaku article, I am now very keen to try one of the Japanese aged single malts!

        Bring on the peat! Although you should try the Macallan. It's a Speyside whisky which is light, crystalline and not peaty in the least. It's a little like Glenfiddich but seems (to me) to be like a lighter, more refined version of it.

          Macallan actually has character whereas Glenfiddich is kind of unremarkable, in my opinion. I've tried Glenfiddich 12, 15, 18, and 21 (rum cask aged), and apart from from the last one found them to be good but forgettable.

          Also, everyone should try Starward - a great Aussie whisky. It has lots of character and no peat and ismade in Melbourne.

            Cannot praise Starward enough, there expressions are amazing for the little time they have been making whisky.

              Was in South Australia beening a tourist recently. Visited Fleurieu Distillery in Goolwa while there. Pretty good and lots of character for sub-10 years whiskey IMHO, considering I usually stick with Glengloyne 12 or 18.

          My mates favorite is Laphroaig, but that is basically a bottle of smokey peat.

      Tassie has some amazing whisky that is up there with the Scottish stuff due to climate.

        I agree. Sullivan's Cove French Oak is one of the nicer ones I've sampled.

          I've heard good things about Lark Distillery but must admit, I'm not much of a whisky drinker myself.

    Grabbed some Aldi Wednesday special whisky (25 y.o. and 18 y.o.) ooo yeah.

      I missed out on that. How was the Aldi hooch? Sad I can't try it.

        Considering that I highly rate the $35 Highland Black, I was expecting them to be good. Was not disappointed. Surprisingly, the folks in the office preferred the 18 y.o. over the 25 y.o.

    This is a National Emergency.

    Someone immediately call the UN.

    I've found it easier at home to get the aged japanese whisky than regular yellow label suntory stuff, which is a bit sh*t, the regular stuff is pretty good too.

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