Asia’s Love Affair with Japanese Whiskies Part 1: Where It All Began – The Zigzag Rise of Japanese Whisky
This editorial is the first of a 2-part series on Asia's Love Affair with Japanese Whiskies. Read the second part here.
Remember that Yamazaki 12 your Uncle was raving about? Or that Hibiki your colleague stashes away like Smeagle from the Lord of the Rings and refuses to let you have some? There was this blur of frenzy about them and then all of a sudden there’s just been no sound no word. Ever wondered what happened to them?
No, you’re certainly not dreaming. Japanese whiskies were indeed all the rage, and also no, you did not accidentally from time to time find yourself in some secret cult that was just obsessed over Japanese whiskies just because. They were cherished and so loved and coveted like toilet paper rolls in the pandemic for good reason. We’ll get into that.
What the heck is going on? Where did all the Japanese whiskies go?
The last several years have been fairly quiet in the land of Japanese whiskies. To be dramatic, it almost feels like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. Maybe we should’ve titled the editorial “I Am Alcoholic” (terrible reference to I Am Legend)?
So in this barren wasteland, we see some survivors sneaking out from time to time, in the form of sporadic releases from indie distilleries like Akato Distillery or Chirashi Distillery. Heard of ‘em? Well if you did, you must be pretty pretentious cause we just made them up. But it does highlight what has been going on, this wave of new distilleries that no one has heard of and simply pop up as a blip and then quietly disappears again.
Akkeshi distillery, off snowy Hokkaido, is one of the most anticipated indie whiskies to come to market in 2021. (Image Source: The Spirits Business)
Now what about the two giants, Suntory and Nikka? Are they still in a coma? It seems pretty much so. The cause? A severe shortage from years of extraordinarily strong demand worldwide for Japanese whiskies which basically drained their reserves, causing discontinuation after discontinuation across their stables, hitting everyone from Yamazaki, Hakushu, to Yoichi and Miyagikyo. After which, even the blends were not spared, both Hibiki and Taketsuru.
The shortage was as fast as it was intense, starting with the oldest most limited distillates and then making its way down the age statements, and when the single malts were done with, the blends (getting their supplies from the various distilleries within Suntory or Nikka, hence having larger reserves) were next to go. What followed was a 3 – 4 year drought after years of people going crazy over Japanese whiskies like toilet paper rolls during the Covid pandemic lockdowns.
Were Japanese whiskies always this big a deal? If so, why was it only recently did everyone decide to go nuts about them?
Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s get to the lesser known bits.
Unbeknownst to many, there was in fact a time when Japanese whiskies were also a barren wasteland, albeit for a vastly different reason. It was because they were wildly UNpopular. You heard that right, kids. The land of the rising sun had once been home to a fairly sizeable number of distilleries, and yet many of them ended up mothballed (the industry’s term for going to the shits). Some of them include Karuizawa (a name that those of you who watch the Japanese hit reality series Terrace House may be vaguely familiar with), which you might have chanced upon and then hastily moved on when you saw a $12,000 price tag, or Hanyu which also goes for some unspeakable 5-figure price.
So, what happened? Why was it a failure? Well, whiskies started penetrating Japan in the 1890s to early 1900s, around the years when Japan first opened itself up to the world. Scotch whisky was by then a staple in Europe, and of course had made its way to Japan. Most Japanese distilleries back then made local beverages like Sake and Shochu, but also began to dip their toes into this new drink, which had the potential to be big in Japan.
In 1923, Shinjiro Tori opened the Yamazaki distillery under the name Kotobukiya (which would later go on to become Suntory) with the help of one Masataka Taketsuru, who had came back from Scotland after having learnt whisky distilling at Hazelburn distillery (sister to Springbank). Taketsuru would later leave Suntory to go on to become the founder the other Japanese whisky giant, Nikka. Together, Tori and Taketsuru produced Japan’s first native whisky, Suntory White Label, which turned out to be a huge flop! How times have changed eh?
What’s your point? Why do we dislike Japanese whiskies and then like them again? Make up your minds!
Now, here we finally arrive at the heart of the perennial issue.
The original Suntory White Label was unpopular as it emulated Scotch whisky which locals found to be too rough, pungent and undrinkable. (Image Source: Suntory and Oak & Barley)
The Suntory White Label whisky sought to emulate Scotch whisky, but the Japanese locals with their own palate and sensibilities were just not having it! On the nose, it was far too smokey and its high alcoholic content singed the eyes and nose. The palate was too rough and gritty, and the strong pungent flavors came off as jarring. Basically, its flavour stood out like a jovial and abrasive pipe-smoking Scottish sailor in a crowd of refined and polite Japanese office workers. And so the Suntory White Label whiskey was wildly unpopular, because it was made how the Scots would drink it, and failed to cater to Japanese tastebuds.
Subsequently, World War II broke out and forced Japanese distilleries to grind to a halt. It was only after WWII ended that Japanese distilleries restarted production in earnest. The likes of Suntory began to pivot, focusing their efforts on promoting labels such as Tory’s and Kakubin, which were much more delicate and gentle in flavor and more noticeably, absent in the characteristic smokey flavor borne from firing barley with peat. This was by no means an accident in any way. Japan was and still is reliant on Scotland for barley, and doesn’t have local peat that can be used to fire barley. Post-WWII, it was harder for Japan to import barley from Scotland, much less peat-fired barley.
As a result, Suntory focused on lighter malts with the hopes of pushing it as part of the famous whisky cocktail, the Whisky Highball. This seriously took off and was a phenomenal hit, kicking off Japan’s love for blended whisky. These blended whiskies fitted in nicely with Japanese life as they could be served with meals, after-work drinks, or as a refreshing drink across the four seasons. They were not just light, delicate, tended towards the more fragrant and floral profiles, but could also hold up to dilution which made them perfect for cocktails.
The now popular whisky cocktail, Highball, was a hit in Japan as it was easily paired with meals and was light and refreshing for the hot summers. (Image Source: Square Foot HK)
Another key element that favored blends was that Suntory and Nikka, much like Johnnie Walker and Chivas, were a stable composition of multiple distilleries. This allowed for a great deal of mixing and matching of different malts to form a smooth and flavorful blend. This was in contrast to much of the Scotch whiskies which come from standalone distilleries and are expected to showcase the distillery’s distinct character. With Japanese blended whiskies, versatility is a major advantage.
“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time” – Bill Murray, Lost in Translation (2008)
And so Japanese blended whiskies flourished! As fate would have it, lightning hit the same spot more than twice – Hibiki hit international silver screens with the movie Lost in Translation (Bill Murray was sipping on a Hibiki 17, to save you the googling), Suntory acquired US distillery Jim Beam, and also went on to win numerous global whisky awards. Japanese whiskies had officially become an international hit and were globally distributed, widely known, and highly sought after.
What do you think about the gradual rise and popularity of Japanese whiskies? Do you think you would have preferred the strong flavour of the old pre-war Japanese whiskies? In the next part of this series, we explore why drinkers in Asia have a strong preference for Japanese whisky, and what exactly it is that makes Japanese whisky so popular in the region.
Till then, stay tuned and kanpai!