Standing on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in 1989, one might have felt just a bit paranoid. A New York Times headline on 3 November screamed ‘Japan Buys the Center of New York!’ More than a few New Yorkers snorted coffee out their noses waking to the purchase of Rockefeller Center by Mitsubishi.
The Japanese economy had been on an unbreakable, upward trajectory since 1950. Savvy corporations extended their growth through foreign investment, an ‘asset bubble’ that went bust the very same year as the Rockefeller Center deal. The downturn of 1989 ended in a crash in 1991. The economy contracted, and with it, much of the high end whisky market. Focused on the domestic scene during the ‘lost decades,’ the distillers cut back, underestimating the volume of aging spirit to set aside. The Nikkei stock exchange put in a bottom in 2000, and as the domestic whisky market recovered, global thirst for their high quality spirit took off.
Some date the surge in demand to a 2003 movie, Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray, set in Tokyo, and credited with internationally popularising Yamazaki’s Hibiki 17 Years Old Japanese blended whisky. Nikka’s Taketsuru 17 Years Old pure malt won the World Whiskies Awards in 2012, and a 2014 TV show about Masatika Taketsuru set off a domestic buying frenzy for Nikka products.
In 2014 Suntory won Best in the World for its Yamazaki 2013 cask. International and domestic demand for Japanese spirits exploded. Whisky makers were forced to reserve spirit for the future. In 2015 Suntory announced it would stop selling Hibiki 12 Years Old, replacing it with the no age statement Hibiki Japanese Harmony.
The same year, Nikka discontinued their Taketsuru 12 Years Old pure malt, substituting a new NAS. The haemorrhaging in the market has continued. Suntory withdrew Hakushu 12 Years Old and Hibiki 17 in 2018.
This disappearing act has sent Japanese whisky devotees into panic mode. Wine and spirits merchants tell me they get phone calls every day from shoppers looking for discontinued Japanese whiskies. Consumers are buying up anything with an age statement, driving prices through the roof. My neighbourhood on New York’s Upper West Side has many independent liquor stores. I gauge what’s happening by comparing local prices to those on the East Side, downtown, and beyond by searching online.
Many whiskies are now ‘unavailable.’ Elsewhere, it’s price anarchy! The Yamazaki 12 Years Old single malt ranges from $109 to $189 (£84 to £146). The top quotes reflect more than a doubling since 2016. One store that had a Hibiki 17 tucked away offered it to me for $500 (£387), up from $150 (£116) in 2015.
Even though I’ve seen prices in excess of $1200 (£930), I turned it down. If you’ve been following my articles in this magazine, you know that I write for consumers who actually want to drink their whisky, not squirrel it away in vault. We enjoy our whisky! We crave flavour: whisky solo, whisky paired, whisky in mouthwatering juxtapositions to Western gastronomic treasures, rich chocolate and heady cheeses. Japanese whiskies are particularly designed to accompany food, so let’s try some parings and triads. We’ll start with the whisky.
12 Years Old (Suntory) 43% ABV
Still on the shelves. But beware of price inflation! Famous for pineapple notes and so much more, a sandalwood incense signature of Mizunara oak, a flash of umami, and white peppered sherry.
Fruition Chocolate (USA), Hispaniola 68%
Has delightful red fruit and spice notes.
St. Nuage (France) Hervé Mons
A buttery, brie-type, but milder.
Coastal Cheddar (UK)
Rendered fruitier by the whisky.
Mizunara Oak 43% ABV
A NAS blend of Japanese malts, finished in Mizunara oak three months during an ocean voyage. It’s rich, satisfying and reasonably priced.
Marou (Vietnam) Tien Giang 70%
A fruit and spice profile teases out the spicy bottom and apricot in the whisky.
Fruition Chocolate(USA) Marañon, Dark Milk 68%
Kaiyo turns this bar into chocolate mouth-mousse!
Saint Angel (France)
A buttery cheese, becomes whisky cream dream.
Taketsuru (NAS) 43% ABV
A replacement of the 12 Years Old, this is a complex blended malt, some of which was aged in sherry casks. It has green and stone fruit, malt, roasted and cocoa notes, pepper, oak, and a dash of peat.
Pump Street (UK) Genada 70%
Fruit, floral, and subtle earthy backbone complement the Nikka.
Bijou, aged goat cheese by Vermont Creamery (USA)
Comté, Fort des Rousses by Fromagerie Arnaud (France) aged 18-24
The whisky pulls the Comté in a floral direction and opens it up.
12 Years Old (Suntory) 43% ABV
Think green–basil, evergreen, mint, green tea, and refreshingly fruity green apple and pear, with a waft of peat smoke. So recently discontinued, you may still be able to find it somewhere for under $200 (£155.) But for how long? The NAS replacement has a similar herbal profile and should also work with the chocolate and cheese triads suggested below.
Marou Tien Giang (Vietnam) 70%
Fruit and spice notes combine with the whisky to bring out another dimension of flavours.
Bonnat (France) Morenita 65%
The luxurious mouthfeel of Bonnat envelops earthy and umami notes, then meet the whisky to evoke savoury, barbecued pork.
Coastal Cheddar, goes herbal under the influence, like wrapping cheese in arugula.
Japanese Harmony (Suntory) 43 % ABV
A NAS replacement for the Hibiki 12, the Harmony is blended from Yamazaki and Hakushu malt, Chita grain whiskies, and is aged in American oak, sherry and Mizunara casks. Sweet on the uptake, spicy on the backend, fruity (orange, Rainier cherries) vanilla, a whisper of sandalwood. With complexity that belies the sweetness, it goes down easily with a pleasant finish of almond, caramel and hint of liquorice.
Marou (Vietnam) Tien Giang 70%
Contributes just enough sweetness and spice to tilt this triad in a savoury direction.
Fontina Val d’Aosta (Italy)
The creamy mushroom notes in this cheese thrive when paired, or as a triad, without being overpowering.
Toki, 43% ABV
Initially released in North America, Toki, a blend of Suntory single malts and grain whisky, can now be found in Europe. Target audience is entry-level whisky and Highball drinkers. To drink it straight, please let it breathe; the first whiff reminded me of herbal scented nail polish remover. When that settled down, the nose emerged definitely green, no doubt the Hakushu distillery component, from basil to evergreens, fruity, spicy and malty. Classic Yamazaki pineapple notes noted, but alas, no Mizunara.
Its mixed drink-ability carries over to pairing with:
Bonnat (France), Mexique 75%
Some mesquite and caramel in the nose. On the palate, the Bonnat and Toki produce rum, pops green mint, and the pepper in the Toki is suppressed.
Pump Street (UK), Jamaica 75%
Mocca and a hint of berry work well with the Toki.
Add a saline cheddar, such as, Montgomery’s (UK) with Prairie Breeze (USA) almond liquor notes showed up.
Mars Iwai Tradition 40 % ABV
One of the best bargains, aged in ex-Bourbon casks, finished in sherry and red wine casks. While a whiff of peat smoke’s in the mix, it’s more of the sherry, fruit and spice profile that drives pairing compatibility.
Pump Street (UK) Grenada 70%
Mate Iwai Tradition with a fruit and floral dominated flavour profile, cherries and berries, rather citrusy notes.
Try with a cheddar that’s on the mild side, more a Coastal Cheddar type than a Montgomery’s.
Kanpai! Slainte! Cheers!