Thanks to growing brand recognition and a slew of awards, international demand for Japanese whisky is outstripping supply, posing a challenge for distilleries.
One of Japan’s two whisky powerhouses, Suntory Holdings Ltd, has seen overseas sales, including its premium Hibiki brand, nearly triple since 2010, from 120,000 to 320,000 cases.
The other leading player, Nikka Whisky Distilling Co, a unit of Asahi Breweries Ltd, began curbing its shipments in 2016, after racking up considerable growth.
Since Japanese distilleries started exporting in the early 2000s, their products have consistently been rated among the top products in their respective categories. In 2014, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, which proclaims itself as the world’s leading whisky guide, gave its highest honor to a Yamazaki single-malt.
Suntory recently set up a team of seven to expand its U.S. market. It supplies to more than 400 bars and restaurants in New York City. The company is also aiming at a young demographic.
“Millennials are sensitive to business information and have some extra money to spend,” said Hiroyuki Hayakawa, director of corporate planning at Suntory. “We find it a great opportunity to introduce Japanese whisky to them.”
At a recent tasting event at a downtown Manhattan mall, members of the public were able to sample products including Suntory’s Hibiki priced at $65 a bottle.
Two workers in their early 30s from a nearby media company tried the Hibiki on the rocks, although it wasn’t their first taste of Japanese whisky.
“I have two bottles of these at home,” Jim Lewis said.
“I ordered Yamazaki two, three months ago for my stepfather’s birthday,” said his friend Toby Carter. “It’s indulgent but good.”
Japanese whisky is also earning a reputation for playing hard to get. Asahi, for example, has limited its exports to 150,000 cases, about 18 percent less than its 2015 sales. Once case holds a dozen 700- or 750-milliliter bottles.
“Whisky takes a long time to mature before it becomes the final product. Even if there is a demand, it’s impossible to churn out products immediately,” explained Suntory’s Keita Miura.
Both Asahi and Suntory told Kyodo news that they are limiting the export amount in order to sustain the overseas supply without compromising quality or future production.