It's a case of 'land of the rising dram', but is there substance behind the hype?
The concept of drinking Japanese whisky might sound as implausible as was, until recently, sipping on single malt from Tasmania. But both ideas are far from new to lovers of the malt spirit.
Numerous varieties of Japanese whisky - once the hard-to-find preserve of aficionados and top-end bars - are joining newly trendy Tasmanian drops in the mainstream, as bottle shops and bars bolster their offerings to meet growing demand.
Hamish Fyfe, the business manager for whisky at liquor retailer Dan Murphy's, says he has had to find more Japanese whisky to put onto shelves.
“We've had Yamazaki in our range for a long time, and towards the end of last year we put in two Nikka products,” Fyfe tells Executive Style. “We've been getting pretty good sales increases on the Yamazaki, so we tried to get a bigger range. Adding the Nikka products has meant that not only were we able to meet the growing demand, but also talk a little bit more about the category of Japanese whisky.”
The story of Japanese whisky goes back about 90 years and owes its existence largely to two people - Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, who founded the distilleries behind the two largest producers – Suntory and Nikka.
Taketsuru travelled to Scotland to study organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow before working at the Hazelburn distillery in Campbelltown. It comes as no surprise, then, that the whiskies produced at the Yamazaki and Yoichi distilleries established by Taketsuru are modelled strongly on the Scotch style, with other Japanese whisky following suit over the years.
Japanese whisky, now globally recognised for its quality by awards and honours earned in international spirit competitions, only comes from nine distilleries - coincidentally the same number as Tasmania.
Fyfe says the continued rise in popularity of Scotch whisky has had a flow-on effect – no pun intended.
“As people have experienced scotch now they're going outside of that – we've got whiskies from India, and obviously Australia, which has taken off since Sullivan's Cove picked up that award. And we're looking at bringing in a couple of other whiskies, too – there's a Swedish one, and Penderyn from Wales. As it comes in, people start exploring and seeing how these brands compare with the scotch whisky they've got at home.”
Brooke Hayman is co-owner of Melbourne bar Whisky + Alement, which stocks more than 500 single malts and blends, including around 30 varieties from Japanese makers.
“We also have a cheeky collection of about 100 that are in our private collection, too,” Hayman adds. “We flew to Japan last year to do a tour of the distilleries and were frantically collecting whilst we were over there. We hold them to the side and as one runs out we put another one on the list.”
Hayman reckons it is consumers' increasing desire to find unique experiences in an era of globalisation that's leading to an upswing in Japanese whisky drinkers. “We see people's eyes wander – they look for something unique, something exotic, I suppose you could say,” Hayman says.
“Things aren't exotic these days with globalisation, but with Japanese whisky people don't even realise it's there – which is quite a surprise as Yamazaki was founded in 1923, not far off a hundred years now. But people still don't realise that there is Japanese whisky out there.”
Barry Chalmers, the marketing and training manager for renowned Sydney whisky den The Baxter Inn, suggests bartenders are having a major influence on sales of Japanese whisky to bar customers.
“I reckon that about 75 per cent of it is what the bartender wants to push. At Baxter there's a little intimidation going on for customers when they're faced with a wall of whisky – they trust what our bartenders suggest,” he says.
As for an increase in demand in Japanese whisky over the past 18 months, Chalmers says it has been incremental. “We've always had a large selection of Japanese whiskies - 20 to 30 odd – due to our self-importation. For other venues that now have access to a bigger range of Japanese whisky, that may be a different story.”
From Japan with love
And there is plenty more Japanese whisky on the way. Apart from Nikka Whisky's range that includes the blended Nikka From The Barrel and single malts Yoichi and Miyagikyo, Japan's biggest player in the whisky game, Suntory, is also bolstering its Australian offering. Five new releases – that will be stocked by Dan Murphy's before the month is out – have complemented the already popular Yamazaki 12-year-old single malt and include the Hibiki blends and the gently smoky single malt, Hakushu.
But how will the price compare to scotch already on the market? Dan Murphy's spokesman Fyfe explains that single malt Scotch starts around $50 a bottle and goes up from there, whereas a Japanese whisky of similar age starts around the $90 mark.
“I feel that the prices of Japanese whisky will always remain a little bit higher than Scotch,” adds Fyfe, “simply because of the limited amount of product that we have access to. It all comes down to supply and demand. I think you can get exceptional buys in Scotch whisky that would beat it, but it's certainly comparable in terms of its quality.”
Top spots to try Japanese whisky
Whisky + Alement : 270 Russell Street, Melbourne
Heirloom: 131 Bourke Street, Melbourne
Baxter Inn: Basement, 152-156 Clarence Street, Sydney
Tokonoma: 490 Crown Street, Surry Hills