Get ready for a Japan whiskey drought

Osaka-based distiller Suntory estimates sales of Hakushu 12 will end by next month and those of Hibiki 17 by September

TOKYO • Suntory is scraping the bottom of its whiskey barrel, but there is still not enough to go round.

Earlier last week, the Japanese distiller said it had sobering news for drinkers. Suntory Holdings was set to turn off the sales tap for Hakushu 12 and Hibiki 17 as demand for the aged grain liquor skyrocketed around the world, Bloomberg reported.

The numbers behind the name refer to the number of years the liquor has been aged.

The exact dates when the barrels would run dry depends on inventory levels, but Suntory anticipates Hakushu 12 sales to end by next month, and Hibiki 17 by September, in Japan. Stocks overseas are expected to taper off after that, according to a spokesman for the Osaka-based distiller.

It is the first time that Suntory has halted sales of a product and the company does not know when the two liquors will return to store shelves.

"We've been investing in additional distillation equipment and storage... and will continue to do so in the future to meet market demand," Suntory said.

Suntory, the third-largest whiskey maker in the world, began distilling the drink in 1923 in Japan.

Its oldest flagship brand, Yamazaki, has been toasted by aficionados, winning multiple international awards.

A 50-year-old bottle can fetch about US$300,000 (S$400,000).

The Hibiki and Hakushu brands are younger, but are also well regarded among consumers.

The company has tried not to dampen the spirits of drinkers, investing about US$262 million in the past five years to ramp up production.

The demand-supply mismatch can be traced back to the 1980s, when the market was not so buoyant in Japan, leading producers then to reduce output, according to a Forbes report.

This has led to the stock for aged whiskey that, say, dates back more than 10 years, to become depleted by the current booming sales.

A television drama series in Japan also boosted the thirst for whiskey, especially among women.

When Massan debuted in 2014 on the NHK network, it went down easy among viewers. It tells the love story of two characters strongly based on the lives of Mr Masataka Taketsuru and his wife Jessie Roberta "Rita" Cowan, and their attempts to begin the Nikka Whiskey Distilling company.

Outside Japan, whiskey makers have also been cheered by robust sales, with market volume growing by more than 50 per cent in the decade between 2006 and 2016, according to market researcher Euromonitor International.

Rare whiskys made in Scotland have also brought windfalls for their owners, with two bottles of 60-year-old Macallan selling for a total of HK$16.6 million (S$2.85 million) recently at an auction in Hong Kong.

Bloomberg cited Mr Daniel Lam, head of wine and whisky at auctioneer Bonhams in Hong Kong, as saying that whisky has outperformed even the most coveted French wine from Burgundy, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, which has appreciated by about 30 per cent in the past 12 months.

Macallans 18 years and older have doubled over the same period, he noted.

"Nothing can compare with the performance of whisky, it has proved its status as an alternative investment," Mr Lam said.

Prices at Bonhams auctions have been expanding at double digits every quarter, thanks to demand from buyers in Taiwan, China, Indonesia and Vietnam.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 27, 2018, with the headline 'Get ready for a Japan whiskey drought'. Print Edition | Subscribe