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Monday, April 6, 2015

Whisky Observations from Japan (or Where the Hell is the Japanese Whisky?)

I'm starting my two weeks of Japanese posts on a sobering note, but I promise that things will get much brighter and boozier as the days progress....

In hindsight, I should have consulted with The Japanese Whisky Review and WhiskiesRUs before I left for Japan.  But I didn't.  Originally, Japanese whisky was the catalyst for my voyage, but as I planned my itinerary, and other matters came to the surface, whisky became a secondary aspect to my travel.  Nonetheless, whisky made a number of important appearances while I was in Japan.  I drank infrequently while I was there, but what I drank (and what I found) was memorable.  For a comprehensive examination of the current whisky industry from a more knowledgable person, see Dramtastic's, "Japanese Whisky – Where to From Here?".  He talks about the smaller producers as well as the larger ones.  What I'm writing below are my observations from the ground, from the street level (because that's where I'm from, yo), during my seven-day stay.

Before this trip, I thought that the Japanese made the best single malt in the world.  That may sound strange coming from someone who has reviewed 350+ Scotch whiskies and less than a dozen Japanese malts.  But the consistency, the elegance, the richness in the whiskies from Japan's two main players (Nikka and Suntory), demonstrated much greater attention to quality control, and much less corner-cutting, than what has been coming from the Scotch industry's major members over the past half decade.  Perhaps I was misattributing it to a stereotype, but it seemed as if the Japanese distilleries held a greater sense of pride in the product they were bringing to the market.

After this trip, I no longer feel the same way.

As mentioned, Japanese whisky was one of the reasons I went on this trip.  Yamazaki was one of the reasons I scheduled most of my time in Kyoto.  Spending time at the distillery was indeed a lot of fun (as will be detailed in my next two posts) and I am very thankful to have had the opportunity.  But the whisky that Suntory's distilleries are now bringing to the market is not good.  No longer are they putting a 10, 12, or 18 year old on the shelves.  Instead, non-age statement whiskies (called, I believe, Distiller's Reserve) have taken their place.  I tried the Yamazaki and Hakushu NASes twice during my trip, but found them so underwhelming that I decided against buying small bottles to bring home to review.  They're both flatter and hotter than their 12yo predecessors and have nearly no finish.  While the 12s were consistently mid-80s (or grade B) whiskies, the NAS are low-70s (about a C- grade).  And this is all that Suntory is putting on the shelves from what I saw in Japan.

Let me clarify.  Between my time in Shinjuku and Kyoto, I visited 16 liquor retailers.  Out of those sixteen, one had a pair of Yamazaki 12s and Hakushu 12s.  Four had Hibiki 12.  Everything else from Suntory (malt and blend) was NAS.  Nikka fared slightly on their side of things.  Half of the stores had Yoichi and Miyagikyo 10 or 12 year olds.  One had a 15.  The rest, including all of its Taketsuru "pure malt", was NAS.  (Regarding the smaller producers, about half of the time there's one White Oak, one from Ichiro, and one of Kirin's around.)  Of those 16 retailers, seven were large department stores (like Isetan) who as of a couple years ago, not only had Japanese whiskies with age statements, but also often had exclusive single casks.  At this point none of them even had a Japanese whisky product with an age statement.  The duty free stores in Narita had almost no Japanese whisky at all.

It appears as if the lead Japanese whisky company (Suntory) is no longer putting age stated whisky on the shelves of liquor stores in two major wealthy urban areas in its home country.  Do Osaka and Yokohama have all the AS (age stated) whisky instead?  I don't know, but I doubt it.  Yamazaki, Suntory's larger distillery, is just minutes south of Kyoto.  And if the bottles don't make it to Kyoto or even Yamazaki's gift shop......?  Meanwhile, my local Costco here in Southern California has at least three cases of Hakushu 12 on the shelf for a low price.  So is the US getting all of Suntory's AS malt, or are we now seeing the last of it?  I don't know.

One of my Kyoto neighbors
I've been told by a couple of fellow whisky curmudgeons that Suntory "f**ked up" when it came to underproducing and underpricing their AS whiskies as well as anticipating the market's movement.  As you may have noticed, I am suspicious about the claims and motivations for the Scotch industry's descent into NAS releases.  Thus I was somewhat doubtful about the claims about Japan's aged stock shortage.  But now, I think it has to be at least somewhat true.  I can't envision the same companies who had released gems such as Yamazaki 18 and Yoichis 15 and 20 now having much pride in the uninspiring, almost generic, NAS products whose labels hold the corporate name.  These new products certainly have their place as sub-$30 starter whiskies, but they are taking the same price spot as the old 10/12s.  Suntory's and Nikka's malts may still have the consistency, but I no longer see the elegance, the richness, or the quality control.  (To be fair to Nikka, the Yoichi NAS is better than both of Suntory's Distiller's Reserves and is priced lower.)  Whether or not someone did f**k up or there was an unforeseen volume boom, consumers are losing out.  Customers have a lot of choice in the world whisk(e)y market right now.  How much loyalty will they feel towards the large Japanese brands?

If any of you have found similar or different whisky circumstances in Japan this year, please let me know in the comments below.  It was disorienting to walk into shop after shop after shop and find only a small corner of NAS Japanese whisky every time.  I'm hoping that I was only caught up in a synchronicity that left everything from Takashimaya to Yamazaki to Lawson's to the corner liquor shop devoid of the same things for a small window of time.

But if you're traveling in Kyoto or Tokyo you may be comforted to know that many of the bars still have the old Suntory and Nikka AS malts we've come to know and love.  And the bars, dear god the bars, the whisky in the bars.  I won't spoil the upcoming posts here, but......there is whisky in the bars.  Will the bars still have the Japanese classics next year?  I have no idea.

BUT!  And I shall end on another but.  There is sooooooooooooo much Scotch whisky to be found in Japan right now.  Holy moley.  Most of the hole-in-the-wall liquor shops (not to mention the bars) I visited had a slew of Scotch single malts (some of which have been on the shelf for more than 5 years) at very good prices.  A few shops had staggering (not hyperbole) selections.  While there, I thought to myself, "So this is where the Scotch has gone."  Had I not been carrying my home on my back like a bespectacled turtle, I would have returned with a case of goodies.
So, take heart whisky explorers, you can find all of the Scotchy gems (from indies to officials) that I left behind in Japan.  Just don't expect to find much, you know, Japanese whisky.