Japanese whisky: 100 years down, 100 years to go?

This year’s closing statement will be a unique one, as Japanese whisky is officially now over a century old.

2023

Suntory celebrated 100 years since breaking ground at the Yamazaki Distillery, Japan’s first whisky distillery. While I had hopes for some kind of celebratory release, all we got was the same whisky as always with some specially labeled bottles. Oh, and some canned highballs. It did give me a good enough excuse to revisit Yamazaki 18 Mizunara, though (thanks to @whisuki and @alohawhisky for this).

Speaking of Suntory, the company’s marketing department must have had a weird year. One of the more interesting things to happen was tapping Keanu Reeves to star in a video series directed by none other than Sofia Coppola. I found that pretty rich because Keanu–who really likes Japanese whisky–already starred in a Suntory whisky commercial way back in 1992. Then there’s Sofia Coppola. The director of Lost in Translation, a movie that’s arguably one of the reasons Japanese whisky is even popular these days. To those of us who have been around Suntory for a while, this combo felt a bit surreal.

Err, it might have been less surreal if the distillery itself wasn’t closed to the public for half the year. Luckily it’s open again now. This was apparently related to the company pouring yet more money into Yamazaki and Hakushu for floor malting and such.

Shortly after reopening the distillery, Suntory celebrated the 99th Yamazaki Day. Or did they? Only ten days later, they defiled it by announcing massive price increases for essentially their entire lineup of whisky. Like I said, a weird year for Suntory. Nikka followed soon after, Akkeshi has announced theirs, and I can only assume other makers will soon.

Looking outside of Suntory. Events came back in a big, big way in 2023. Probably bigger than pre-COVID. Tokyo BarShow! 100-Year Whisky Project! Whisky Luxe 2023! Japanese Whisky Day! Chichibu, not one but two whisky festivals in Tokyo, a new whisky festival in Yokohama, and the Osaka Whisky festival. And how can we possibly forget the Tokyo Whisky & Spirits Competition Awards Ceremony and Megatasting. And it was punctuated with shochu: shochu competitions, the Shochu Enkai, and too much to list here. These are just the ones I went to.

Of course, my major accomplishment of the year is probably the release of Japanese Whisky Yearbook 2023. Written and published by the Japan Whisky Research Centre and translated into English by me, this remains the most comprehensive resource you’ll find about Japanese whisky distilleries, in print or online. The 2023 edition covers 76 distilleries and of course is chock full of beautiful color photos.

2024

But guess what: we’re just getting started. I’m pleased to announce the Japanese Whisky Yearbook 2024 will also be getting an English release! The 2024 edition adds a smashing 37 new Japanese whisky distilleries, bring the total to 113. Hell, most people don’t even know there are that many in Japan. Given the breakneck pace of the category these days–new builds, upgrades to existing distilleries, the latest single malt releases–it’s essential that you have a resource that’s regularly updated.

February is already shaping up to be a busy month. 2022’s Japanese Fes looks to be back, this time in Yokohama, on February 11th, 2024. Literally just a week later everyone and their brother descends on Saitama for the Chichibu Whisky Matsuri. Then, a handful of people will congregate at the Komoro Distillery for the three-day World Whisky Forum, its first ever holding in Asia.

…the what? I’ve not been to any World Whisky Forum, so I can’t tell anyone what to expect. The program shows a lineup of familiar names representing Japanese whisky alongside more familiar names if you know your APAC stuff (Starward, Paul John, Amrut, etc.), all moderated by Dave Broom.

The World Whisky Forum bills itself as a “forum to share insights, thoughts and discussions into the possibilities and challenges the global whisky industry faces.” Specifically they’ve lined up 12 presenters and will have an audience of 70 people. Will those 70 people have a chance to share their thoughts and participate in discussions?

They better! The cost is a staggering $1320 USD. I assume the program be presented only in English. Oh sure, two nights for a hotel, six meals (2x breakfast, 2x lunch, 2x dinner), and local transport is included. What kind of spend is that? Assuming everyone is being put up in the same hotel, it would have to be of a decent size. Something like the Karuizawa Marriott runs around JPY 40,000 per night. And those meals? No idea, but some recent French pairing dinners held at the distillery run JPY 50,000 per head. The Karuizawa area has never really been famous for being cheap. If anything, it’s famous for being the opposite. Maybe the organizers are barely breaking even.

For context, how much is attending something like, I dunno, a TED Talk? That starts at $5000 USD. Given all of the above, if you’re the kind of person that a) can capitalize on insights gleaned from a forum like this and b) might find you/your company spending 40,000 yen per day in Karuizawa anyway, $1320 could end up being an easy cost to justify. 

What else is in store? Looking back to 2021, there were 23 distilleries granted whisky licenses that year. So we’re likely to continue to see many, many new Japanese single malt releases.

Maybe even exhaustingly so. With over 100 new distilleries, most of which were only built in the past 5-6 years, it’s a full-time job to keep track of who, what, where, and when these things are all happening. Some distilleries do new releases 4-5 times per year. These are mostly tiny distilleries, after all. With the stresses of cashflow for the whisky business, even a seemingly small business decision can have disastrous consequences. Given the prices of these comparatively short-matured whiskies, what if it’s easier to simply take a step back from Japanese whisky for a few years and see how things play out?

Rather than try and steal market share from one another in Japan, the task for the Japanese whisky industry in the next few years will be growing its worldwide market share. To do so, the smaller players will need to expand capacity to make sure they’re positioned.

Looking forward to more excitement in 2024.

Kanpai!
Whiskey Richard

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