Booming demand leaves Japan's whiskey lovers dry

Whisky barrels left to age at the Suntory cellars at Hakushu distillery. The domestic whiskey market in Japan reached its peak in 1983 but shrunk until bottoming out in 2008.
Whisky barrels left to age at the Suntory cellars at Hakushu distillery. The domestic whiskey market in Japan reached its peak in 1983 but shrunk until bottoming out in 2008. PHOTO: SUNTORY

TOKYO (WASHINGTON POST) - Some Japanese whiskeys are in short supply due to their increasing popularity in overseas markets and a recent domestic boom of highballs, or whiskey and soda.

Under such circumstances, Suntory Spirits, an affiliate of Suntory Holdings, announced plans to suspend sales of two of its whiskeys - Hakushu 12 Years and Hibiki 17 Years - from June.

While makers are preparing to increase production, the shortage will likely last for some time because of the lengthy whiskey ageing process.

Since the suspension of sales of Hibiki and Hakushu was reported, customers have flocked to the whiskey corner at the Kintetsu department store flagship shop at the Abeno Harukas commercial complex in Osaka.

"I'm shocked as they are my favourites," said a 43-year-old company employee, who declined to be named and had been looking in vain for the products at several stores.

The suggested retail prices are set at 8,500 yen (S$103) for the Hakushu 12 Years and 12,000 yen for the Hibiki 17 Years, both excluding consumption tax. The department store has restricted the sale of the Hakushu 12 Years to one bottle per customer over the past few years and began refusing to accept reservations for the product about a month ago.

In an online auction, the price for Hakushu 12 Years, which has been in short supply, has surged to several tens of thousands of yen or higher since the suspension of sales was reported.

Whiskey can be made by blending different types of unaged whiskey. Of the whiskeys that Suntory sold in Japan last year, Hakushu and Hibiki accounted for 1 per cent, respectively, while their lower-priced brands made up larger proportions, with Kakubin accounting for about 50 per cent and Torys for about 20 per cent. As unaged whiskeys are currently scarce, other brands could also be forced to suspend sales.

Nikka Whisky Distilling, an affiliate of Asahi Breweries, ended sales of bottles with age statements for Taketsuru in 2014, as well as Yoichi and Miyagikyo in 2015. Kirin Brewery Co, which sells Fuji-Sanroku and other brands, is finding it increasingly difficult to meet the growing demand.

The domestic whiskey market reached its peak in 1983 but shrunk until bottoming out in 2008. The market has been expanding since then, triggered by a surge in the popularity of highballs that boosted whiskey consumption.

Additionally, Japanese products have received high international praise, as illustrated by Hibiki 21 Years Old, which won the Supreme Champion Spirit at last summer's International Spirits Challenge 2017, a competition held in Britain.

Exports of Japanese whiskeys stood at 13.6 billion yen in 2017, an over tenfold increase over the past decade.

However, it takes several years to age whiskey, and makers are finding it difficult to meet the demand. Unaged whiskey that was produced when demand for the drink was low is being used to make the whiskeys that are currently available on the shelves: The rapid increase in demand for the drink had not been anticipated.

Makers have already begun working to boost production. Suntory will invest a total of about 29 billion yen in expanding facilities for distilling and storage from 2013 to 2018.

Last year, Asahi Breweries increased production by 80 per cent compared to two years ago.

"It takes time to age whiskey, which means it's difficult to resolve the shortage issue immediately," said Dr Hideki Katsuda, a professor at Kindai University and an expert on the liquor industry. "On the other hand, it's hard to make accurate forecasts for future demand, and makers could make massive capital investment (for boosting production) in vain."