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Japanese whisky at the crossroads – a travel report

Slàinte Mhath
Administrator Administrator
Posted on 02-08-2019 at 19:48 pm

After visiting all major Japanese distilleries in the past three weeks, I wanted to share some impressions, news and discussions I had, that might be useful if you are interested in whisky from the land of the rising sun.

Japanese whisky has become a victim of its own success. International awards, recognition and interest of investors, collectors and drinkers alike has taken a heavy toll on stocks. Discontinuing age statements and opting for NAS has bought Japanese distilleries some time, but now even NAS products are disappearing from the shelves and fake-Japanese whisky is taking its place. In my discussions, some distillers were more open with their criticism, like Ichiro Akuto at Chichibu distillery, while others were more polite and wished not to be quoted (typically Japanese), and yet the message was the same. Sourced whisky from Scotland, Canada and the US sold as 'Japanese whisky' by some companies is a serious threat to the reputation of Japanese whisky as a whole. Blaming Kurayoshi and Togouchi is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are new fake-Japanese whiskies almost every month. Supply and demand has led to a situation where greed and lack of clear rules (there is no equivalent to the SWA in Japan) are undermining the very core of Japanese whisky.

Buying Japanese whisky in Japan has become nearly impossible. Three years ago, 18 cl bottles of Yamazaki, Hakushu, Miyagikyo and Yoichi could be found at most convenience stores. Today, everything except for Chita has disappeared from the shelves. Specialized shops offer no more than half a dozen of bottles, ranging from the above mentioned fake-Japanese whisky, to 'world blends' like Chichibu's 'Malt and Grain' or blends containing Scottish grain, such as Akashi/Mars. Only Hasegawa Liquors at Tokyo Station had aged Suntory/Nikka malts in stock, but prices were outrageous. 25,000 Yen for a Yamazaki 12 and 75,000 Yen for a Yamazaki 18 are definitely a show-stopper. If you think that the situation is any better at distillery shops, I have to disappoint you. Miyagikyo did not even have the NAS product in stock, nor any of the Taketsuru blended malts. They offered Ben Nevis, though... Suntory's shops at Yamazaki and Hakushu distillery had neither age statements nor NAS products in stock and Chita was limited to '1 bottle per customer'. That was probably the lowest point on the journey. Their plum wine was labeled as 'this is not whisky!' as if they needed to apologize that these were the only bottles available. Fuji Gotemba had none of their age statement malt/grain whiskies in stock, but only their Fuji-Sanroku Signature Blend. Chichibu doesn't have a shop at the distillery and the local liquor store in Chichibu town offered only Ichiro's 'Malt and Grain'. Only Eigashima Shuzo offered a distillery-only single cask malt, which was 3 years old.

Bashing Kurayoshi and others for ripping off customers and wrecking the reputation of Japanese whisky is understandable, especially if you invest heavily into the future like Chichibu with the opening of their second distillery in September. Four times more capacity is desperately needed, but it will take a few years before it kicks into effect. Investors and collectors are pushing prices of Chichibu malts into heights that are almost unaffordable to the whisky drinker. People at Chichibu are aware of this, but it's hard to blame them when supply and demand are dictating the prices. No need to mention Hanyu and Karuizawa at this point, as both of them are entirely dominated by the investors market.

It surprised me that Eigashima Shuzo (White Oak) is only producing whisky in the summer, while their workers are busy with sake production in winter. Increasing the production by hiring new people is taken into consideration, but again it will take time.

While all the above might sound rather pessimistic, there is also HOPE. Obviously, Suntory, Nikka, Kirin and Venture Whisky are working on the desperately needed regulations that are required to clearly define the usage of 'Japanese whisky'. Resistance is to be expected from those exploiting the lack of regulations, but the opposition by the main players on the market will hopefully prevail. Furthermore, there are attempts towards more transparency. 'World whisky' is found on many whisky labels and even Nikka might be convinced that the use of Ben Nevis in some of their Japanese products must be clearly labeled as such. However, writing regulations and getting laws into effect will take many years. Meanwhile, one can only hope that pressure on the black sheeps continues and the educated whisky buyer makes his/her purchase decision accordingly. More than once, I thought that I had spotted a Yamazaki 18 on the shelf before I noticed it was actually Kurayoshi 18. I am not the first to criticize the nearly identical labels, Serge Valentin at Whiskyfun has mentioned this several times in his reviews. The whole presentation is on purpose, deceiving the customer.

As a friend of Japanese whisky, culture and people, I hope that the future of Japanese whisky will be bright. Japanese whisky is not for everyone, and I personally believe you have to visit Japan to fully understand and appreciate it. Read Dave Broom's 'The Way of Whisky' or Stefan Van Eycken's 'Whisky Rising'. Japanese whisky has a lot to offer and I dearly hope it will pass the test of time.

-Slainte

  Edited on 03-08-2019 at 07:41 am
“There is no such thing as bad whisky. Some whiskies just happen to be better than others.” (W. Faulkner)
lincolnimp
Connoisseur Connoisseur
Posted on 02-08-2019 at 21:42 pm

Thanks for taking the time to give us this write up and sharing your thoughts Timo, really interesting and informative.

  Edited on 02-08-2019 at 21:43 pm
Schmausel
Administrator Administrator
Posted on 02-08-2019 at 21:48 pm

thumps up Timo, good review of your journey happy

karloff
Specialist Specialist
Posted on 02-08-2019 at 23:10 pm

Yeah same here, a good informative read. Never imagined things were that bad. I do like Japanese whisky but at this place in time I'm not prepared to pay the prices. Hopefully as you say things will get better. 

I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. Tom Waits
Slàinte Mhath
Administrator Administrator
Posted on 03-08-2019 at 19:50 pm

One funny addition related to 'fake-Japanese whiskies'. When I visited Zoetrope bar in Tokyo, I had a chat with Horigami-san, who offers the best range of Japanese malts in Japan. Horigami buys whisky for his bar from all over the world, and whenever a new 'Japanese' whisky appears on the market, he tries to get it. It is worth pointing out that most fake-Japanese whiskies are only for the export market, meaning that many Japanese distillers are not even aware of this threat to the reputation of Japanese whisky. However, Horigami told me that in most cases, the companies selling these fake-Japanese whiskies refuse to sell him a bottle, well knowing that a connoisseur like Horigami will spot the fake immediately.

Be careful what you are buying!

“There is no such thing as bad whisky. Some whiskies just happen to be better than others.” (W. Faulkner)
Max70
Connoisseur Connoisseur
Posted on 04-08-2019 at 13:29 pm

Slàinte Mhath wrote:

One funny addition related to 'fake-Japanese whiskies'. When I visited Zoetrope bar in Tokyo, I had a chat with Horigami-san, who offers the best range of Japanese malts in Japan. Horigami buys whisky for his bar from all over the world, and whenever a new 'Japanese' whisky appears on the market, he tries to get it. It is worth pointing out that most fake-Japanese whiskies are only for the export market, meaning that many Japanese distillers are not even aware of this threat to the reputation of Japanese whisky. However, Horigami told me that in most cases, the companies selling these fake-Japanese whiskies refuse to sell him a bottle, well knowing that a connoisseur like Horigami will spot the fake immediately.

Be careful what you are buying!


Thanks for sharing Your experience.


dram_on
Expert Junior Junior Expert
Posted on 04-08-2019 at 16:47 pm
karloff wrote:

Yeah same here, a good informative read. Never imagined things were that bad. I do like Japanese whisky but at this place in time I'm not prepared to pay the prices. Hopefully as you say things will get better. 


Likewise, I do enjoy Japanese whisky, but at current prices, I will slowly enjoy what I have instead of dipping my toes in further. Scotch is going a similar route and before you know it, all us serious whisky aficionados will be priced out. I say buy all you can now (who knows when and if the whisky market will ever turn), and just sit back, dram up, and watch the fireworks.

Slàinte Mhath
Administrator Administrator
Posted on 09-08-2019 at 10:02 am

The best advice on how to stay clear of fake-Japanese came from Horigami-san at Zoetrope who said:

'Buy single malts only. Any Japanese blend, blended malt or pure malt with a name you have never heard before is a concern. If a bottle looks very Japanese (special paper, samurai art etc.), it's most likely a disguise, hiding Scotch, Canadian or whatever in the bottle.'

  Edited on 09-08-2019 at 10:04 am
“There is no such thing as bad whisky. Some whiskies just happen to be better than others.” (W. Faulkner)
sagara-kun
Expert Senior Senior Expert
Posted on 09-08-2019 at 13:48 pm

Thanks for the report, very interesting to see.... that nothing changed!

Exactly the same things I noticed in my last trip there in 2016.


About fakes, don't forget that some use now brand names weirdly (a new Hanyu surfaced, but it's not Hanyu isn't it?)

And don't forget not all Japanese whisky is good, even if it's Japanese. Don't think bad=fake.

moderndrinking
Member Senior Senior Member
Posted on 09-08-2019 at 16:58 pm

Very helpful, not least for anyone planning a shopping trip to Japan. I wish I could recall what I was drinking when I was last there 20 years ago.

Slàinte Mhath
Administrator Administrator
Posted on 09-08-2019 at 17:32 pm

About fakes, don't forget that some use now brand names weirdly (a new Hanyu surfaced, but it's not Hanyu isn't it?)


I haven't heard about that, but I guess people at Chichibu distillery would be really interested to know more (unless they already know). There are not a lot of Hanyu casks left and any fake bottlings would certainly be another concern on Ichiro Akuto's list.

  Edited on 09-08-2019 at 17:34 pm
“There is no such thing as bad whisky. Some whiskies just happen to be better than others.” (W. Faulkner)
whiskystore
Expert Senior Senior Expert
Posted on 11-08-2019 at 01:11 am

Thank you for a nice and well written report, very interesting to read.

whiskystore
Slàinte Mhath
Administrator Administrator
Posted on 15-08-2019 at 15:03 pm

I have posted in-depth reviews of all my distillery visits for those who are interested.

Slideshows have also been updated with new distillery photos.

Chichibu

Eigashima Shuzo

Fuji Gotemba

Hakushu

Miyagikyo

Yamazaki

-Slainte

  Edited on 19-08-2019 at 17:15 pm
“There is no such thing as bad whisky. Some whiskies just happen to be better than others.” (W. Faulkner)
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