Japanese whisky and spirits in 2022 + 2023 outlook

2022

2022 turned out to be quite an interesting year! Worldwide, both public and private sectors, plus the general population, seem to have collectively thrown their hands up in frustration over COVID-19. People are tired of lockdowns, masking, vaccines, and otherwise being told what to do. Do masks actually do anything? Did vaccines do more damage than they prevented? Did x number of people die from COVID-19, or with COVID-19? For many, the answer is simple: I don’t care anymore. Let Twitter argue about it.

At a national level, Japan finally genuinely opened its borders to tourists. Even the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare says you don’t need to wear masks outside unless talking with others “at close range.” Walking around town, though, it’s clear that masks aren’t going away in Japan anytime soon. I suspect a significant portion of the population intends to wear masks for the rest of their lives, with or without COVID-19.

In the whisky world, tourists have been welcomed back to the major distilleries, albeit with restrictions on sampling and basically empty souvenir shop shelves. In terms of events, 2022 saw the triumphant return of the Whisky Festival in Tokyo. There was also the surprise Tokyo Whisky & Spirits Competition Megatasting, an event I hope we see again in 2023.

2022 saw yet more distilleries getting licensed, more distilleries releasing their first products, and more distilleries releasing their first single malts. And as expected, more big-name limited edition releases. There are so many new distilleries that I have begun to lose track (though I will get caught up soon). I can’t even count the number of brands of Japanese gin we have now.

The export success story of all Japanese drinks categories continues. Spoiler alert: whisky already set a new export value record, gin set volume and value records, and shochu set volume and value records. And there are still two months left of 2022 data incoming!

On a personal level. I passed WSET Level 2 in Spirits–Level 3 isn’t offered in Japan!–and became an International Kikisakeshi. No telling what 2023 will bring in terms of learning opportunities, but I’m always open to forcing myself to study when an exam is looming on the horizon.

Here at nomunication.jp, the big development of 2022 is our new partnership with SHOCHU NEXT. My hope is this content partnership will encourage people to learn more about the ingredients, processes, stories, and of course, people behind Japan’s native spirit and most versatile spirits category in the world: honkaku shochu.

2023

2023 will be a thrilling year for at least one big reason: it’s the 100th anniversary of Japanese whisky! Ground was broken at the Yamazaki Distillery in October 1923. 1924 is when the distillery came online, but Suntory recognizes the launch as 1923, given “Since 1923 Year” is printed on every bottle of Yamazaki sold worldwide.

Japanese whisky isn’t ancient when compared to, say, Scotch or Irish whisk(e)y. None of this “first written record of…” or “legend has it that…” ambiguity. In Japanese whisky we can point to specific dates, places, and people. So expect to hear a lot about this 100th anniversary! If you aren’t familiar with the story already, go read one of 2021’s most popular articles on this site. If you prefer to hear the story instead, there’s a narrated tour.

Events will come back in a big way in 2023. Looking at my calendar, there’s Whisky Lovers Nagoya, Chichibu Whisky Matsuri, a Tokyo whisky festival, Japanese Whisky Day celebration, Whisky Harbor Kobe, the (very welcome) return of the Tokyo International BarShow, Biwako Whisky Cruise… and that’s just the first half of the year. This calendar of events flies in the face of currently rising COVID-19 cases and deaths in Japan. Hopefully, everything pans out.

For releases. The big rumor is that Suntory will release some entirely new limited editions of Yamazaki, Hakushu, or both, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Yamazaki and 50th anniversary of Hakushu. We already know they’re doing some special labels, but I’m thinking they’ll really lean into it and release “Yamazaki Centennial” or some other super-duper-unobtanium. After all, it won’t be another 12 years before we see the next Japanese whisky distillery hit its centennial.

Another big release? The first-ever nomunication.jp whisky! I’d rather butt-chug it than see it in the hands of a reseller, so don’t expect to see this one anywhere other than opened and behind a bar. More details after I make some decisions.

And books! Before they sold out, those of you at the Japanese Fes about a week ago may have noticed tables selling “Japanese Whisky Yearbook 2023.” Covering a whopping 76 distilleries, it’s the most comprehensive, up-to-date resource about Japanese whisky ever published. Online or offline. And! There’s both English and Chinese editions coming in early 2023. Guess who is translating the English one? More details about this as we get closer to the date.

Kampai to a great 2023 for everyone!

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