As Japanese whisky production enters its 100th year and sales reach unprecedented highs, producers – both old and new – are in a mad scramble to break ground and build the next legend. Holly Motion assesses whether previous fairytale endings can be repeated – and ponders if those individuals attempting to stand on the shoulders of giants might have a great fall
One hundred years ago, two men, inspired by the Scottish distilling tradition, produced the first Japanese whisky. In the years that have followed, the category’s fortunes – much like its founders’ relationship – have been turbulent.
The story begins in 1923 when pharmaceutical wholesaler turned Spanish wine importer Shinjiro Torii invested his family fortune in building the Yamazaki distillery, against their advice. Torii enlisted the help of wet-behind-the-ears chemist Masataka Taketsuru – who had spent time learning his craft in Scotland – to lead production on their first whisky, Suntory Shirofuda, which was released in 1929. The two men did not see eye to eye and parted ways following the dismal reception of Shirofuda. Taketsuru famously went on to found the other great Japanese whisky producer, Nikka, and their fierce rivalry persisted. This is one of the reasons Japanese distilleries, to this day, blend in-house rather than trade liquid.
Where it all began: the home of Japanese whisky, Suntory's Yamazaki
Despite this rocky start, the Japanese domestic whisky market looked bullish by the late 1930s – Yamazaki’s next whisky (Suntory Kakubin, released in 1937) was more warmly received and Taketsuru successfully re-entered the scene with his first whisky, Nikka Yoichi, in 1940.
Fast forward to the early 1980s and the category was in fine fettle – Suntory and Nikka had both released their first single malt expressions and there was plenty of cause for optimism. But this prosperity sadly did not last as a steep decline in consumption caused the Japanese whisky market to splutter and almost entirely stall, resulting in many distilleries, including Karuizawa, being forced to close their doors. Both Yamazaki and Nikka managed to stay afloat but their output was significantly reduced as the economy and category stagnated, marking a bleak 25-year chapter in Japanese whisky’s history.
When demand was reignited around the mid-to-late 2000s, it largely came from Europe. A perfect storm caused this spike in interest, including wider interest in Japan (think Bill Murray in Lost in Translation), the resurgence of the Highball cocktail (circa 2007) and Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 being named the world’s best in 2014 – a first for the category. Around this time, the world was also introduced to Ichiro Akuto’s highly collectable Card Series and the lost distilling icon, Karuizawa.
“The mad scramble for crumbs on the Japanese whisky scene is something nobody could have predicted,” acclaimed Japanese whisky writer and Ghost Series independent bottler Stefan Van Eycken tells me. “In the space of 10 years, the situation went from being able to buy a whole range of single-cask Japanese whiskies at a big electronics chain for peanuts to bottles not even reaching the shelves of liquor stores anymore.
“Even I, who had been exploring the Japanese whisky scene in the ‘dark ages’, couldn’t have predicted that,” he says matter-of-factly. “If I could have, I would have rented a van, bought up all the bottlings that were available for purchase and I could have retired by now.”
Yumi Yoshikawa joined the team at Chichibu in 2013 after a two-year stint in Scotland, first working in the Highlander Inn in Craigellachie – which will require little introduction for spirits journalists or enthusiasts – and at the Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay. “People didn’t know the value of aged [Japanese] whisky back then,” Yoshikawa tells me. “Or that Japan had a long whisky history,” she adds.
Somebody who was instrumental in educating the world on these two points is Marcin Miller, a man whose fortitude dragged Karuizawa out of obscurity. The genteel and thoroughly entertaining former Whisky Magazine Editor turned drinks entrepreneur, recalls the landscape when he and business partner David Croll first tasted those fateful Karuizawa single casks in the early 2000s.
“The most common complaint [from whisky enthusiasts] at the time would seem to be that it's all very well for me tasting this stuff but we never get to see any where we are in Western Europe or Northern America,” he recalls.
So the two men set about changing this by buying the remaining stock from the then-lost Karuizawa, bottling it, and making it available to the masses – with resounding success. It’s a gross misapprehension – held by many – that the duo meandered into a meeting room, tasted a parcel of Karuizawa, bought it on the spot, and bottled it shortly after, grinning like Cheshire cats as the coffers swelled. In truth, it was four and a half years of negotiation and countless sleepless nights during the process. When pallets of casks from the ghost distillery in a nascent whisky market were finally shipped to them, there was no guarantee the wider whisky world would be interested.
“Whatever anyone says, it really was not easy…” He trails off, transported to that time, and all the challenges the pair transversed when bringing the mature Japanese whisky from a then-unknown producer to its now almost mythic status.
Miller talks of the “extraordinary, phenomenal effect” Karuizawa had on him. Croll, Miller and acclaimed drinks writer Dave Broom – who has since quite literally written the book on Japanese whisky – initially tasted 69 single-cask Karuizawa samples. “I would have bottled any of those casks,” Miller says, a fond smile warming his face.
If it hadn’t been for Croll, who had lived in Japan for 30 years and owned a successful drinks business, Miller says they likely never would have got a foot in the door at Karuizawa – or secured the exclusive distribution rights of the much-lauded Chichibu and Hanyu. “I dare say Karuizawa would have been blended away into big plastic five-litre tubs of supermarket whisky,” Miller says reticently.
When Van Eycken moved to Japan around the same time as Miller and Co were negotiating the Karuizawa deal, he hadn’t even realised whisky was being produced there. Japanese whisky consumption and production were at an all-time low and the general feeling, he says, was that the whisky made in Japan was “cheap and good for getting a buzz when going out, but that the good stuff – that you would savour – was Scotch, and Bourbon, to a lesser extent”.
The intrepid Van Eycken was taken aback by the quality of the long-aged liquids he sampled on his travels and couldn’t understand why this sentiment wasn’t shared domestically or further afield.
When Japanese whisky’s popularity did finally begin to soar, he was perfectly placed to fill the knowledge chasm with his widely acclaimed Nonjatta website and, later, his seminal work Whisky Rising – a fully updated second edition of which came out earlier this year.
“When I wrote the original edition in 2016, there were 14 active distilleries in Japan,” he says. “Fast forward to mid-2022 and there were 41 active distilleries (and even more in the progress of getting ready to distil),” Van Eycken tells me.
All of the new distilleries, he says, are attempting to follow the so-called “craft model” with a single pair of pot stills and fairly limited production. The inspiration, of course, being Ichiro Akuto and his incredible accomplishments over the past 15 years at Chichibu. “But not everyone can be an Ichiro – though most new distillers are certainly hoping to be equally successful, if not more, than Ichiro,” he adds.
Several of these new distilleries are located in and around the town of Karuizawa. “My personal feeling is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try and compete with the legend that is the (old) Karuizawa distillery,” Van Eycken is quick to add. “The liquid that was made there turned out to be something very special, and not only by design. I have had the dubious pleasure of tasting the new-make from the old Karuizawa distillery and it was absolutely foul.
“But during the maturation process, over 20, 30, 40 years, something magical happened. Some of this can be explained, but most of it is a hermetic mystery. We simply cannot know why decades later this harsh spirit transformed into a sublime whisky (in most cases). Even if you wanted to replicate this whisky – or aspects of it – you couldn’t.
“And hoping to match the quality of the (original) Karuizawa whisky… well, it’s good to aim high but it's a bit like naming your kid Roger Federer in the hope that he would turn into a tennis player of the same calibre. Why would you want to put that sort of pressure on the kid?”
Miller is humility personified and doesn’t want to come across as a wizened cynic or, in his words, “boring old fart”, but he’s not confident that all the country’s new distilleries are set for success. “I think people are now trying to replicate the business success but without the foundation of the liquid. They are selling Japanese whisky futures but who knows what the liquid is going to be like because it's not just A + B = C.”
There is a cautionary tale in the annals of Scottish whisky distilling that Japanese producers might be wise to heed. Scotch has famously fallen victim to its own success – with booms and busts resulting in whisky lakes, or lochs, that have crippled the industry and forced mass distillery closures. In so faithfully replicating Scotch, there is a real danger Japan will find itself back in the 1980s when the likes of Karuizawa were shuttered. This time, however, there would be many more casualties.
“For the time being, the Japanese whisky scene continues to be marked by an unbridled optimism,” Van Eycken adds. “Distillers price their (invariably young) whiskies very high (compared with similarly established whisky markets around the world) and consumers snap up the bottles regardless of the (sometimes unjustifiably) high prices.”
This price war is one of the reasons Miller et al sold their remaining stock of Karuizawa, which had initially been priced fairly but wasn’t the case when they left the scene.
The 1960 Karuizawa, for example, which yielded 41 bottles was released circa 2014 for £12,500. Within a decade, those same bottles were easily reaching $375,000. “That's not a bad return in 10 years,” Miller says caustically. “But that's not why we did it. If that had been our motivation, we'd have just held on to it and had 41 times that.”
For those still in the industry – and disciples of it – there is a real push to protect the integrity of Japanese whisky and futureproof it. Yoshikawa picks up the point, outlining that the few have muddied the water for the many: “The rapid publicity and the reputation of Japanese whisky have led to its use of excessive PR strategies, even when this is not in line with the facts of the product.”
For these reasons, she is an advocate of more stringent regulations, like the ones announced by the Japan Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association in 2021 which aims to restrict certain practices – like labelling whisky that isn’t actually from Japan as Japanese whisky – akin to those enshrined and strongly policed in Scotland. But she, like many, thinks these could go further and believe it is important to continue scrutinising the practices of the small and larger players, ensuring there is greater transparency and less “skullduggery”, as Van Eycken puts it.
As the ink dries on the past 100 years of Japanese whisky, no one knows what the next century might entail – but there's plenty of excitement. The landscape will undoubtedly change once more, and new giants and legends will likely emerge. For whisky enthusiasts, the challenge – as always – will be pre-empting the plot twists and securing bottles before they become little more than folklore.