20 years ago, and after a decade of rock bottom popularity, Japanese distilleries didn't set aside enough barrels in their aging warehouses to deal with the completely unforeseen boom in demand that was lying in wait for them. I’m sure a demand planner could write a novel on this stuff.
So what happened?
In 2014, fortunes changed for the Japanese whisky industry.
Brian Ashcraft, author of "Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World's Most Desirable Spirit" attributes this to a couple of major events.
Firstly, a domestic boom took the country by storm after the airing of “Massan” a 2014 television drama about Masataka Taketsuru, who is regarded as the father of Japanese whisky and the founder of the Nikka distillery. Domestic demand skyrocketed with the surge in local interest, but it was going to pail in significance to the world-wide attention that was about to compound the situation. The Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 won the title of best in the world from the Whisky Bible – and well, the rest is history.
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Making 12, 17 and 21-year-old whisky relies on batches being laid down literally decades in advance. Refer back to paragraph 1, and we understand back then not many people were drinking this stuff, so Japanese distilleries Suntory and Nikka weren’t making a whole lot. Fast forward and now there’s not enough aged whisky to go around. As I said, a demand planner could write a novel.
With the barrels running dry, Suntory has little option other than to discontinue certain lines whilst they scurry to refill their aging warehouses. Discontinued Suntory whisky includes Hibiki 12 (2015), Hibiki 17-year-old (2019) and The Hakushu 12-year-old (2019). Ashcraft says distilleries are expecting the shortage to last up to 10 years.
Never the less, Japanese whisky has gained global popularity and whilst aging whisky for 12 to 21, or even 30 years is probably needed to produce an award-winning drop, there is plenty to be grateful for in what's currently being released and that is NAS (no aged statement) bottles.
Ashcraft says that even if aficionados can no longer get the best of the best whisky, there’s still good Japanese whisky to be had. “While Suntory and Nikka are experiencing shortages, a handful of newer distilleries have started distilling in Japan,” he tells McCurry. “Their whiskies might be young, but they’re taking creative approaches that will, no doubt, help further define Japanese whisky.”