Japanese whisky and spirits in 2021 + 2022 outlook

2021

Can the world take a mulligan? COVID-19 continues dictating the pace of life for many. I don’t see any end in sight. Despite being two years deep in this, some people are simply uncooperative, or governments are inept. Or both!

That includes Japan. As I write this, the country is closed to tourists. The government used to rely heavily on tourism to sell the Japan brand to the world. Instead, their policies now call to mind the isolationist foreign policies under the Tokugawa shogunate. Those lasted 264 years. What if Japan is closed to tourists for the rest of your life?

The Olympics and Paralympics happened here in Tokyo. But instead of crowds of tourists discovering glorious Nippon, some journalists and athletes found combini. $25 billion to help 7-Eleven sell some onigiri, okay.

In the world of Japanese spirits, the JSLMA finally got around to announcing their standard for Japanese whisky. It has lots of holes, yes. It’s not a law, no. Bad actors can easily find ways around it. It’s a start, and it’s a start that should have been made long before the category exploded as it has. Now we have an uphill battle. But we’ll still fight it.

2021 was a good year for appreciators of big-name Limited Edition releases. Yamazaki! Hakushu! Hibiki! Nikka Discovery! Mars/Chichibu collab! If you’re more a fan of craft whisky, you weren’t disappointed either.

Another thing characterizing Japanese whisky’s 2021 is non-Japanese entering the market. Hikari Distillery, Nozawa Onsen Distillery, Komoro Distillery, Kamui Whisky, and Kanosuke Distillery (partially) are owned and/or operated by non-Japanese. And those are just the public ones. There’s more in the pipeline that I can’t talk about just yet.

So what’s in store for 2022?

2022

I hope that Whisky Festival 2022 in Tokyo happens. If it doesn’t, well, at least we have the Tokyo Whisky & Spirits Competition and Japanese Whisky Day to look forward to. The Tokyo International BarShow is, once again, already canceled. I suspect the organizers can’t be bothered to plan it, but who can blame them?

Regarding releases, looking at the Japanese Whisky Distillery Tracker, Gyokusendo’s Yoro Distillery started just around the same time as the Yuza Distillery, so we could see a single malt from them soon (Yuza’s is already announced). Once we get into the latter part of the year, or perhaps in early 2023, we could see the first single malt whiskies out of Osuzuyama, Ontake, and even Chichibu 2.

Looking to Suntory and Nikka, I expect Suntory will continue with their Essence series and do more limited-edition releases. They seem to love them, and so do drinkers. For the standard line, Hakushu 12 may have officially “come back” in 2021, but I haven’t seen it anywhere. Nikka, for their part, has already revealed their intent to do Nikka Discovery releases in both 2022 and 2023.

Will 2022 be the year of shochu on the bar counter? My guess is no. In my view, overseas growth of the category requires a global hospitality industry that entices consumers to try the stuff, and whelp the industry is too busy defending itself from government assault.

On a personal note, there will be a lot going on for me in the first half of 2022. I’m scheduled to test for a few more booze-related qualifications, I’ll be moving to a new apartment, and I will again be judging both Western spirits and shochu for the TWSC, as mentioned earlier.

Good riddance to 2021, and kampai to 2022!

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