Sometimes reinventing the wheel is all it takes to get you out of a slump. That's what Suntory executives must have thought in 2009 when, with great fanfare and flashy advertising campaigns, they revived the highball concept in Japan. It was hardly a revolutionary idea. In fact, from the 50s to the early 80s, most whisky in Japan was consumed highball-style or mizuwari-style (heavily diluted with water). Younger whisky drinkers - too young to remember the (first) 'Golden Age' of whisky in Japan - found old-style whisky bars a bit intimidating, so Suntory thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to try and get their cheaper whiskies into bars where they could be used for highballs, as an alternative to beer. They even started selling canned highballs in convenience stores. The rest, as they say, is history: Japanese whisky finally managed to climb out of a decades-long slump and sales were rocketing again. So where do things stand now, a few years later?
Having spent the last couple of years riding the highball wave, Suntory and Nikka decided the time was right to try and entice consumers to have their whiskies in less diluted form without scaring them away with single malt prices. The solution they came up with: the 'rich'/'premium' version of the cheap blend. Making it 'rich' was pretty straightforward. All it involved was a short finishing period in ex-sherry/exwine casks. In March of this year, Nikka released their 'Black Nikka Rich Blend' - which they promoted as the perfect 'sipping' whisky (on the rocks) - and a few months later, Suntory introduced a premium version of their iconic 'Kakubin' which was built around malt matured in ex-sherry and ex-wine casks.
This was advertised under the slogan 'luxury within reach'. It's quite interesting that in the 80s, during the economic bubble, whisky was trying to regain the favour of the drinking populace by presenting itself as 'light', whereas in the current post-depression climate, producers are trying to appeal to consumers by pushing products that are perceived to be just that little bit more 'rich'.
Hand-in-hand with this trend towards 'rich' blends/blended malts, producers are discovering the appeal of wine-cask finishes. It's surprising that it has taken this long for wine casks to become part of the whisky maturation process in Japan given the fact that many whisky producers here also dabble in wine. Aside from the aforementioned 'Premium Kakubin', Suntory also released a limited edition 'Deep Harmony Hibiki' featuring Hakushu matured in ex-red wine casks.
Mars came out with a wine-cask finished version of their entry-level blend 'Iwai Tradition', and at the tiny Eigashima distillery, ex-white wine casks were used to finish the oldest stock in the warehouse (14yo). These special releases were so well received that it's highly likely we will see more wine-cask finishes in the years to come.
The people at Mars are already working on a wine-cask finished variation on their 10yo single malt, which they're planning to release in 2015.
With things going so well at home, Japanese whisky producers felt confident to try and get a stronger foothold in a market where they were shockingly under-represented, the United States. Over the past year, both Suntory and Nikka have made significant efforts to increase and diversify their portfolios there. Suntory added their Yamazaki 25 and Hakushu Heavily Peated to the four expressions that were already available in the US.
They're also about to launch a new blend called 'Toki', specifically created for the US market by chief blender Shinji Fukuyo. Nikka, from their side, followed up on the introduction of their Taketsuru 12 and Yoichi 15 last year, with 4 more expressions: Nikka Coffey Grain, Miyagikyo 12, Taketsuru 17 and 21. The past year also saw the launch of two US-exclusive Karuizawas and part of the Chichibu range will also be on the shelves in the US from now on.
Around the turn of the century, nobody in the Japanese whisky industry could have imagined the sort of sustained growth in the domestic market - and, to a lesser extent, abroad - that we have witnessed over the past four years. One of the ways in which the big producers are trying to deal with the stock shortages resulting from this fortuitous turn of events is by replacing their entry-level single malts and blended malts, which used to carry an age designation, with no-age-statement expressions. In 2012, Suntory replaced their 10 Years Old Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts with NAS versions. (Interestingly, these are not exported.) Recent special, limited editions of their premium 'Hibiki' blend Traditionally, they only distilled for three months a year, January to March.
This year, they extended that period by one month, and the idea for next season is to start one month earlier and add another month at the end (December to May), keeping them busy for half the year. They are also planning to construct a new warehouse.
One of the main reasons why this is such an exciting time for Japanese whisky is that we're in the middle of a shift in orientation. Half of the story is that the treasure chest of Japan's whisky past is slowly depleting. Of the iconic Hanyu distillery, less than 100 casks remain at the time of writing. The 'card series' is now complete, save for the much-anticipated Joker, and even though Ichiro Akuto carefully guards his remaining Hanyu casks - only bottling a handful every year - the end is in sight.
There's slightly more stock from Karuizawa distillery left, which is also stored at Chichibu now, but not much.
Number One Drinks' ability to bottle in 2013 has not kept up with demand and something around two-thirds of the stock is still maturing. Casks remain unbottled (although reserved by trade customers) from every decade from the 60s to the noughties. After the overwhelming demand seen for the 1960 release, the oldest Japanese single cask whisky ever bottled, other special projects are being planned, the most imminent of which is a 1963 50 Years Old. Whisky enthusiasts, at home and abroad, know that the book on Karuizawa is being closed so it's not surprising that new releases sell out within a matter of minutes.
As liquid history is slowly but surely disappearing, producers and consumers are looking towards the future. All eyes are on the smaller craft-distilleries such as Chichibu, Mars and Eigashima and expectations are high. Although their maturing stock is very young (5, 3 and 6 Years Old, respectively), those who've tasted some of the whiskies agree that the quality is very high. Chichibu, in particular, is a trailblazer in this regard, releasing whiskies that are extremely young (sometimes even too young to be called 'whisky' in Scotland) yet show no trace whatsoever of immaturity. Some of the vigour of these new or newlyrestarted distilling enterprises seems to have rubbed off on others as well. As of last year, whisky is also being produced in Okayama prefecture. The people at Miyashita Sake Brewery were keen to use their know-how in the field of sake, shochu and beer production to try their hand at making whisky in preparation for the company's 100th anniversary in 2015. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.
Nothing exemplifies the shift of emphasis from the past to the future better than the situation at Mars Shinshu distillery. After periods of distilling in Yamanashi (60s) and Kagoshima (late 70s to early 80s), parent company Hombo Shuzo set up a distillery in Nagano (Shinshu) in 1985.
At the time, they vatted their entire stock and moved it by tanker to the new site where it was refilled into casks and left to further mature. The distillery was mothballed in 1992 and remained silent for nearly two decades. In 2010, twentyfive years after the old stock had been transferred by tanker, it was bottled as "3+25" (28 Years Old). In an amazing twist of fortune, this release went on to win the title of 'Best Blended Malt in the World' at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards. The supreme irony was that, just days before the awards ceremony, the people at Mars were bottling the last few hundred cases of that "3+25". There is no more stock from the pre-Nagano days left, and the stock from the 1985- 1992 period is almost gone, too.
However, there's hope. Mars has been distilling again - albeit only in the winter - since early 2011 and they're experimenting with everything from barley varieties, fermentation periods and yeast types to the impact of climate on maturation. One thing they're planning on doing is making a "reverse 3+25", i.e. sending 3 year-old malt from the new production at the distillery in Nagano to the Hombo warehouses in Kagoshima for a further 25-year period of maturation. The unbridled optimism that's evident from this and many other plans currently being hatched at distilleries throughout Japan is encouraging. Our future dream drams are being prepared as we speak…