The world's best whisky is also the most elusive

Only 18,000 bottles of the world’s best whisky, the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 (above), were produced by Suntory, Japan’s oldest whisky distillery. -- PHOTO: YAMAZAKI
Only 18,000 bottles of the world’s best whisky, the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 (above), were produced by Suntory, Japan’s oldest whisky distillery. -- PHOTO: YAMAZAKI
Only 18,000 bottles of the world’s best whisky, the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, were produced by Suntory (above), Japan’s oldest whisky distillery. -- PHOTO: YAMAZAKI
Only 18,000 bottles of the world’s best whisky, the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, were produced by Suntory (above), Japan’s oldest whisky distillery. -- PHOTO: YAMAZAKI

The Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 is the most sought- after whisky now, but good luck getting your hands on it

A Japanese single malt whisky has become the spirit du jour.

Since being crowned the world's best whisky by the 2015 World Whisky Bible, a yearly guide compiled by British whisky expert Jim Murray, the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 has become the most sought after spirit in town.

Bartenders and spirits distributors here tell Life! there has been a surge in inquiries from customers since the news of its win broke last Monday. The bad news? The whisky is not available here.

The limited edition sherry cask whisky, produced by Suntory, Japan's oldest whisky distillery, was launched exclusively in Europe last year. Only 18,000 bottles were produced.

The recommended retail price per bottle is £100 (S$205), although bartenders here say the price may have jumped due to the sudden rise in demand.

Mr Alex Yong, Beam Suntory's country manager for Singapore, says his company has received "overwhelming" demand for the whisky, but adds that there are "no plans at the moment to export it internationally". He did not explain further.

Major spirits distributor La Maison Du Whisky has been receiving 12 to 20 inquiries every day, while the Whisky Store and Quaich Bar in Havelock Road has been getting about 10 calls a day.

"I tried to get it myself but couldn't. It's not even available in Japan," says Mr Aki Eguchi, 33, the Japanese head bartender at cocktail bar Jigger & Pony.

Mr Chua Khoon Hui, 39, co-owner of Quaich Bar, notes: "It is popular and trendy now because of Jim Murray. But it's like the iPhone - it will be popular for a short time but things will normalise, even the price."

It is the first time a Japanese whisky has made it to the top spot in the Whisky Bible's 12-year history.

The winning Yamazaki whisky is matured in Oloroso Sherry casks, which give it a rich flavour with a good balance of acidity and fruity structure, and a deep red colour.

Two American whiskies, the Kentucky bourbon William Larue Weller and Sazerac Rye 18-year-old Straight Rye, took second and third places respectively.

Not a single Scotch made it to the top five short-list, say online reports.

Mr Murray was also quoted as saying Scottish distilleries were "in danger of churning out drab or mediocre malts", although many experts that Life! spoke to disagree with this view.

Dr Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach for British alcohol giant Diageo, says: "The whisky produced in Scotland today has never been of higher quality, and we lead the world in terms of knowledge of distillation, our craft distilling and our distinguished heritage - none of which we take for granted."

Indeed, the Scots are known for producing some of the world's famous whiskies from distilleries such as Glenfiddich, Bowmore, The Macallan, Glen Ord and now, The Last Drop, whose 1965 scotch was named Scotch Whisky of the year by the Whisky Bible 2015.

But in recent years, Japanese and American whiskies have gained popularity.

In Singapore, the variety of American whiskies available has grown, with bars such as The Regent Singapore's Manhattan bar and The Secret Mermaid in Collyer Quay boasting an extensive selection.

Beam Suntory's Mr Yong says he has seen "a surge" in demand for Japanese whiskies including Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki whiskies. He adds that the firm has even brought forward allocated stocks for January to meet demand for the upcoming festive season.

He says: "We believe Suntory whiskies have set a new standard in the whisky industry and the delicate and elegant taste of our Japanese whiskies pair well with local cuisine, making it a huge hit with Singaporeans."

Diageo's Dr Morgan says in comparison to Scotch whisky, most of the famous Japanese whiskies tend to occupy a "more narrow flavour profile - sweet, rich and slightly woody".

A spokesman for Scottish whisky brand The Macallan says Japanese spirits can show a wide variation, and use an oak grown in Japan - the Mizunara - to make casks and mature their spirirts.

"This particular wood type can contribute a specific range of aromas and flavours often described as sandalwood, which is an obvious difference to Scotch whisky," the spokesman says.

The majority of single malt whiskies matured in Scotland are aged in American (ex-Bourbon) oak casks, with a small percentage of Scottish distilleries ageing their whisky in ex-sherry or European oak casks, says Dr Morgan.

While the winning Yamazaki whisky is unavailable here, bartenders say drinkers can try the Yamazaki 12 or Yamazaki 18.

Other bartenders and bar owners also recommend the Nikka Taketsuru 17-year-old, the Bunnahabhain 18-year-old or the Springbank 15-year-old, which have a similar taste profile to the Yamazaki sherry cask whisky. The Macallan also has an extensive range of sherry cask whiskies.

Average prices range from $150 to $400 for a bottle of whisky.

Mr Eugene Fung, 33, co-owner of The Merry Men at Robertson Quay and The Mad Men Attic Bar in North Canal Road, which is a showcase bar for Japanese whisky brand Nikka, says sales for Japanese whisky have really picked up over the last three years. Mad Men Attic Bar alone sells about 200 bottles of Nikka whisky a month.

He attributes this to growing awareness.

"Most of our customers have already tried Japanese whisky in Singapore, and more bars here are inclined to stock Japanese whiskies now.

"We appreciate the way the Japanese produce whisky - it's much cleaner and more consistent than whisky produced by other countries."

melk@sph.com.sg