Japanese whiskey: A neat primer

At a time when consumers are seeking out artisanal well-crafted spirits, Japanese whiskey has risen to celebrity among discerning collectors.

It came as no surprise to whiskey enthusiasts when, in January, a 50-year-old bottle of Yamazaki Single Malt Whiskey was hammered down for nearly $300,000 at Sotheby’s Wine + Spirits auction in Hong Kong. This record sum complements other noteworthy prices reached for whiskey from the land of the rising sun. In 2016, another half-century aged Yamazaki whiskey (bottled in 2005) sold for $129,000. A year later, the library collection of almost 300 bottles from the now-closed distillery Karuizawa sold as an entire lot for over $1 million at auction.1

Why the sudden popularity in “water of life” from far-away lands? Few people know whiskey has been produced in the Pacific island since the nineteenth century. Yet Japan has been on the radar of whiskey cognoscenti for decades, and gained a passionate global following in the past few years. With its meticulous execution, scarcity and collector demand, Japanese whiskey fits the bill for even the most selective collectors.


The basics: age, category, and that extra “e”


Grains like barley, corn, rye and wheat are staples. While some of us are content with oatmeal, many people also enjoy their grains in fermented liquid form. Americans also enjoy spelling whiskey with an “e”, and everyone else prefers it without. All types of whiskey are made with grains which are fermented, distilled, and then aged in wooden barrels.2

  • Whiskey (Whisky) is actually a broad category that refers to a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash (barley, corn, rye)
  • Scotch is a whiskey that must “technically” be produced in Scotland. It is made from mostly malted barley, and aged in oak barrels for three years or more.
  • Bourbon is whiskey distilled from a grain mash of at least 51% corn.

The number you see on the whiskey bottle label refers to the time the drink has spent aging in a cask. The higher the number on the bottle, the longer the whiskey has aged, and thus acquired more flavor from the oak. The record-breaking Yamazaki single malt had spent fifty years in a barrel before it was bottled. While in the cask, there is inevitably some loss of liquid due to evaporation of the whiskey, which is referred to as the “angel’s share.” Therefore, older whiskeys inherently produce fewer bottles.

A dip in production in Japanese distilleries beginning almost 30 years ago helps explain today’s rising prices. After decades as the drink of choice, Japanese whiskey dropped in popularity in the 1980s as consumers chose sochu and beer. Distilleries reduced or even halted production, meaning far less older whiskeys were available when Japanese whiskey jumped into the global spotlight.

Limited availability and high demand put more pressure on the price, resulting in a succession of record prices. Whether 50-year-old Japanese Yamazaki, or 60-year-old-Macallan scotch, which fetched the most recent record price for a bottle of whiskey – one million dollars – whiskey is unquestionably on the rise.4


Whiskey history


Whiskey production in Japan originated in the late nineteenth century. In 1923, Shinjiro Torii founded the spirits company Suntory, and the first commercial whiskey distillery Yamazaki, in the outskirts of Tokyo. Torii was familiar with Scottish whiskey, and made a conscious effort to recreate its style but with a Japanese personality. Torii chose Yamazaki due to its unique position in a mountainous valley where three rivers meet, resulting in soft water that is ideal for whiskey maturation.5 (Just like in fine wine and champagne, the concept of terroir is important to whiskey production—and can be read about in my earlier primer on champagne!)

Masataka Taketsuru was born into a family that owned a sake brewery. While training as a chemist, he became fascinated with whiskey, and became the first Japanese to study the art of whiskey making in Scotland. He apprenticed at different Scottish distilleries and learned to make both malt and grain whiskey.6 Back in Japan, Taketsuru joined Torri and became the first master distiller at Yamazaki. He left in the 1930s to establish his own company—Dainipponkaju, which later changed its name to Nikka.

Collectors appreciate the historical legacy reflected in Suntory and Nikkas’ blended and single malt whiskeys. Both Japanese companies also reflect a unique characteristic of the country’s whiskey companies: vertical integration.

Japanese whiskey companies tend to be “self-sufficient,” owning both the brands of blended whiskey, and the distilleries that supply them. Except for the smaller companies, they tend not to “swap stocks.” This means your Japanese whiskey is most likely made with components that are all produced and blended in-house.

In Scotland, by contrast, whiskey is often blended with stocks from different distilleries. Thus the whiskey you’re drinking may include stocks from many companies, including competitors.7


The best whiskey in the world


Interestingly, Japanese whiskey was not available in the US until about 30 years ago.8 Collector and market accolades have helped this spirit ascend into the spotlight. In 2015, Jim Murray named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best whiskey in the world in his eponymous “Whisky Bible” book. “The next thing you know there’s a huge run on Japanese whiskey,” says Robin Robinson, author of the forthcoming “The Complete Whiskey Course.”9

Scott Thatcher, a Boston-based Japanese whiskey aficionado, comments, “Originally, I was drawn to the unique history of how Japanese whiskey got its start. The idea of blazing forward with an untested product in an untested market is compelling to me as a business person. Then, as my interest in the flavor and complexity of Japanese whiskeys developed, I found an enthusiasm among the bar scene for it too—so you almost become a member of a small ‘tribe’ of people following their passion.” Today, this tribe has gathered critical momentum.


Whiskey care


If you’re the owner of a prized bottle, or are considering expanding your collection to include this elegant spirit, there are a few things you should consider to care for your whiskey.

Due to its high alcohol content, storing whiskey is fortunately less complicated than storing wine. The magazine Whisky Advocate details some best practices on their website. Like high-value wines, collectible whiskey can be protected by a “blanket” insurance policy for wine and spirits on a specialty coverage form for collectibles. This can allow you peace of mind as you sit back with a glass of whiskey and watch the setting sun.

Katja Zigerlig is Vice President, Art, Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).

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