Whisky in Japan – a 2014-2019 Perspective
The Internet can be a fabulous source of information of almost any topic. But when it comes to purchasing whisky in Japan, a lot of what you find reported online (and repeated on discussion forums) is often woefully out of date. So I thought I’d provide an update to my earlier Japan whisky travelogues, and add some perspective from a determined whisky hunter.
I have had the good fortune to travel to Japan annually for the last 5 years. My work has routinely taken me across Chiyoda and Minato regions (especially Ginza, Akasaka and Rippongi). I have also stayed in Shinjuku – and make regular pilgrimages to Shibuya on most visits. I tend to travel around a lot, on foot and public transit, and make a point of stopping in to as many big-box discount department stores, dedicated liquor stores and mom-and-pop shops as I can in my travels. And of course, I prepare for these trips by scanning recent blogs and threads, looking for success stories of spotting sought-after whiskies in the wild. At a minimum, I hit at least a dozen stores per trip (plus corner konbinis) – and sometimes considerably more, if I have the time.
I find most of what is reported online by whisky hunters falls into the standard confirmation bias cognitive trap. You rarely see people report their failure to find desired whisky. And for those few brave souls who buck the trend and admit to a lack of success, they are often ridiculed in discussion forums by self-styled experts for “not having done their research.” Often repeated are claims that what they were looking for is “commonly available everywhere”, etc. A tell-tale sign of these respondents is that they neglect to mention how much it actually costs “everywhere.”
As an aside, I find it amusing when some of these supposedly “available” bottlings are whiskies never released in Japan in the first place, or were discontinued several years ago (more on this later). But even truly available popular bottlings – like Nikka’s From the Barrel – will not be found in most venues. I have almost never seen it in a big box department store, or small corner stores. When I do see it, it is usually in the better-stocked dedicated liquor stores. But even then, it shows up (at best) only half the time. So on any given trip, where I hit a mix of stores, I will likely find anywhere from 0-2 stores who actually have it in stock. So much for “commonly available.” My point is that you need to consider the class of store that actually carries what you are looking for.
That said, there are indeed things you will find nearly everywhere – entry-level blends, designed for mixing. Suntory’s Chita was available in at least half the outlets on this last trip, including a number of Family Marts and 7-Elevens. But age-stated whisky, truly made in Japan? Ah, that’s where I come to the first take-away message:
Age-stated, true Japanese whisky is extremely hard to find. And expect to pay typical secondary-market prices if you do.
My latest trip to Tokyo last month included a side trip to Kyoto. I mainly found age-state Japanese whiskies at the larger big box stores (i.e., the mega-sized Don Quijotes and larger BIC Cameras with dedicated whisky sections). In total, I came across a handful of places selling Yamazaki 12yo for 20,000-30,000 Yen ($250-$350 CAD) for a full bottle, or 2,000-2,900 Yen ($25-$35 CAD) for 50mL sample bottles. I found one place selling Yamazaki 18yo for 85,000 Yen ($1020 CAD). I found one place selling the discontinued Hakushu 12yo for 40,000 Yen ($480 CAD), one other place selling Hakushu 18yo for 78,000 Yen ($935 CAD). I found one place selling a single bottle of the discontinued Hibiki 17yo for 43,000 Yen ($515 CAD), and one place selling Hibiki 21yo for 75,000 Yen ($900 CAD).
For context, I remember picking up Hibiki 17yo for ~7,500 Yen this time in 2014 (when it was truly commonly available). And I picked up the Hakushu 12yo in the US last year year for ~$120 CAD. Needless to say, I passed on all of the above age-stated releases this time around.
My point is that if you were looking for any specific bottling (and were willing to pay these prices), you would still likely have to scour more than a dozen stores before you stumbled on it. Funny how that advice is rarely given online.
As an aside, duty-free at the airport is also pretty limited now. You used to be able to find “airport exclusives” that were just jacked-up price versions of the popular age-stated releases. But even those are gone now – I saw no real Japanese whisky with an age-statement at Haneda’s international terminal this trip. Narita is usually a bit better for selection – but the price will still be high. I wouldn’t leave it to your outbound flight if you have hopes of finding something specific.
Ok you might say, but what about all those fancy age-stated bottles from newer distilleries like Yamazakura, Kurayoshi, and the like? They certainly look like the bottles from established makers like Yamazaki and Nikka. And are probably tasty enough – but they aren’t actually Japanese whisky. A great problem in Japan is loose labeling laws that allow distilleries to import whisky from other countries (Scotland and Canada are popular sources) and re-package it for sale as a product of Japan. Many of these distilleries are long-running producers of shochu, and have indeed starting laying down whisky – but it will be many years before they are selling fully Japanese-made whisky at those age statements.
I did notice some younger expressions (e.g. New Born and 6 year olds) coming out of Yamazakura, which are likely their own juice. But all those 18-28 year olds being sold for 15,000-50,000 Yen? Heaven only knows what exactly is inside the bottles. I understand that Japan is looking to tighten up its labeling laws, as all these “faux whisky” brands are giving the industry a bad name. FYI, if you are looking for a way to separate out true Japanese whisky from the fakes, here’s a useful infographic chart and table courtesy of Nomunication. Sad to say there seems to be at least as many fake age-stated whiskies as real ones at the moment. Which brings me to my second point:
Beware of age-stated whiskies coming from distillers without a long history of making whisky.
So, what about bourbons? Japan has long been a mecca of sorts for bourbon fans, given the history of unusually old age-stated bourbons specific to the Japanese market. Note the word “history.” Classic examples include Wild Turkey 12 year old, Old Ezra 15 year old, Evan Williams 12 year old, Very Olde St Nick 18 year old, etc.
I still commonly see threads asking for recommendations as to which of the above would be best to bring back (given typical duty-free limits for most countries). The short answer is none of them, since they don’t exist anymore. The bourbon boom in the US means there simply aren’t aged stocks to preferentially sell to Japan.
I didn’t come across a single bottle of Evan Williams 12yo this year (I used to find it fairly regularly in liquor stores, and for ~$35 CAD or less – a good buy). It is true you can still find Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel and Four Roses Super Premium, but the former has become quite hard to find (typically only in the better-stocked dedicated liquor stores now). I didn’t see a single bottle of Blanton’s SFTB on my last trip, although I did come across a couple of bottles of Blanton’s Gold (albeit for more than what it costs regularly here at the LCBO).
It’s true that Wild Turkey 8yo is commonly available almost everywhere, including corner stores – but this is just a slightly longer-aged version of standard WT 101 back home (which is believed to be ~6 years old). The sought-after 101-proof WT 12yo version is long gone, and the new 13yo “Distiller’s Reserve” (at lower 91 proof) seems like a cash grab in fancy packaging (saw it for >$100 CAD in a couple of stores). Which brings me to the third main point:
Age-stated American bourbons are largely a thing of the past in Japan.
Wrapping it all up, the whisky situation in Japan is not looking good – and has gone from reasonable to abysmal in five short years. It is even pretty steep to try most of the above in bars, given their scarcity. Simply put, if you really want to buy these, you are going to have to do your homework as to where to look, and pay secondary prices.
One bright light, if you happen to be in the Kyoto area, is to visit Yamazaki distillery. Just a short train ride away, it will only take about half an hour from Kyoto station. Note that you need to register for a distillery tour 3 months in advance (I’m not kidding). But for the museum, gift shop and tasting bar, you only need to register a couple of weeks in advance to get a spot (and its free admission).
You are limited to just 3 pours from the tasting bar, but the prices are remarkably cheap. The Yamazaki 18yo, Hakushu 18yo and Hibiki 21yo were all only 600 Yen for 15mL pours (the 25-30 yo samples will set you back 2,900 Yen). But the best part is you can also taste the component whiskies for some of the above, at ~200-900 Yen a pour. A highlight for me was the cask-strength Yamazaki new make for only 100 Yen (remarkably clean and fresh, with no off-notes – clearly, they only take the best cuts coming off the still). Thanks to controlled time entry, it’s never particularly crowded. Highly recommended if you are in the area.