Japanese Whiskey in Fierce Demand on 100-Yr Anniversary

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A visitor to Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture, looks at barrels used to age whiskey in the company’s early days.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of whiskey production in Japan. Over the last century, Japanese distillers have mastered production methods from Europe and traversed a unique commercial history.

Though suffering for a time from sluggish sales, Japanese whiskey has now garnered global recognition, and its popularity has even led to shortages of longer-aged varieties in recent years. This has prompted major distillers to increase production and led to a proliferation of new whiskey distilleries.

Demand outstrips supply

Whiskeys aged 10 years or older under labels such as Suntory Spirits’ Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Hibiki and Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.’s Taketsuru have become increasingly difficult to come by, in part because the distilleries had not been producing much.

“A lot of my whiskey-loving customers prefer the more aged whiskeys, but I’ve been unable to serve them for about 10 years due to the short supply,” said a 70-year-old proprietor of a bar in Osaka.

Whiskeys have become harder and harder to get as their popularity has climbed in Japan and abroad. In fact, last year saw a record-breaking ¥56 billion in exports of domestically produced whiskey, a 21.5% increase from the previous year. This growth was largely driven by the success of Japanese whiskey labels such as Yamazaki and Taketsuru at international competitions. Exports are on the rise to North America, China, Southeast Asia and even Britain, the home of Scotch whiskey.

“[Japanese whiskey brands] are highly praised for their delicate flavors, achieved by blending together various carefully prepared whiskies,” said Mamoru Tsuchiya, representative of the Japan Whisky Research Centre.

A distinctive history

Whiskey production got its start in Japan at Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture. Construction of the malt whiskey distillery began in October 1923, at the behest of Shinjiro Torii, founder of Suntory, and was completed the following year.

The first full-fledged, domestically produced whiskey — Suntory Shirofuda (meaning “white label,” currently sold as “White”) — was launched in 1929, and for some time thereafter demand for Japanese whiskey rose in line with economic growth. However, shipments of Japanese whiskey peaked in fiscal 1983, and then fell by 80% over the next quarter century. An increase in liquor taxes made the drink more expensive, and it lost ground at izakaya pub chains to chuhai cocktail.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The turning point came in 2008, when Suntory introduced a promotional campaign for highballs — whiskey mixed with soda water — and the alcoholic drink began to attract attention, especially among the younger generation. This led to more interest in whiskey itself. Supported by its recovery at home, Japanese distilled whiskey has also gained a strong reputation overseas.

“Our simple-minded pursuit of quality even during slow times paid off,” said Suntory’s chief blender, Shinji Fukuyo, 62.

New distilleries open

The rapid recovery in demand for Japanese whiskey has led to a number of new distilleries. According to the National Tax Agency, there were 157 distilleries as of fiscal 2021, more than double the number a decade ago. So-called craft whiskeys produced by small distilleries have also been hitting the market. Meirishurui Co., a Mito-based sake brewery that has been in business since the Edo period, resumed its whiskey production last year after a roughly 60-year hiatus.

Suntory and Kirin Holdings Co., meanwhile, are rushing to increase production and alleviate the shortage of longer-aged whiskey by renovating their distilleries. However, it takes more than 10 years in many cases for the aging process that produces the unique aroma of these products, and supply will still be chasing demand for some more years.