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Japanese Whisky Sees Opportunity As Consumers Explore New Spirits Options

February 6, 2014

Consumer enthusiasm for whiskies has created new opportunities for origins beyond Scotland, the U.S. and Ireland—and Japanese whisky is looking to benefit from the trend. The category’s presence in the U.S. is small at about 8,000 cases, according to Impact Databank, but its upscale positioning has attracted new attention.

“American consumers now have a broad appetite for exploration when it comes to whiskies,” says Robin Coupar, senior brand manager of fine whiskies at Campari America, which currently imports the Suntory whisky line from Japan. Those labels include single malt brand The Yamazaki, which has a 12-year-old ($65 a 750-ml.), 18-year-old ($200) and 25-year-old ($1,600); single malt The Hakushu, offering 12-year-old ($65) and a more peated version at $160; and 12-year-old blend Hibiki ($65).

The whiskies of Suntory’s great rival, Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., are handled in the U.S. by Anchor Distilling Co., which markets Nikka’s single malt brand Yoichi 15-year-old ($130) and pure malt Taketsuru 12-year-old ($70). Anchor also has limited inventories of the Taketsuru 17-year-old ($150) and 21-year-old ($180). It recently expanded with the Miyagikyo 12-year-old ($120) from a smaller Nikka malt distillery and a younger, non-age stated whisky called Coffey Grain ($70). The latter is mostly distilled from corn and aged in ex-Bourbon casks with Bourbon’s trademark sweet vanilla tasting notes.

“With the Yoichi and the Taketsuru, there’s something of a scarcity issue,” says Anchor Distilling president David King. “We bring in just 3,000 cases of them combined, with most demand coming from major metro markets like New York and Chicago. Hawaii and California are big for us as well.”

The Suntory and Nikka whiskies are premium-priced over comparatively aged Scotch whiskies, and Coupar sees good reason for that. Brands like The Yamazaki are primarily aged in a Japanese oak called Mizunara, which lends spice but is porous and prone to evaporation, leaving less whisky to sell at full maturation. “Japanese distillers base their style on Scottish pot-still distillation formulas, but they take their blending to extremes, with an eye to how the finished product will pair with food,” says Coupar. “There are more (scientists) involved in production in Japan than at a typical Scottish distillery.”

But the vast majority of Japanese whisky is produced for the domestic market, where heavily flavored, well-aged whiskies are largely out of fashion, King says. Japanese drinkers prefer blends of 3- to 5-year-old liquid that can be diluted with soda, a drink that’s called a Highball. “That’s one big reason they’ve never laid down a lot of old whiskies,” King explains. “But they’re starting to do it now.”

Suntory, with its pending $16 billion acquisition of Beam Inc., will now be looking to expand its U.S. footprint, and that should augur well for its Japanese whisky brands. King doesn’t think the category can become much broader in the near term: a few boutique distilleries are struggling to get off the ground in Japan, he notes, but “they’re niche-oriented.” But while King doesn’t think enough product will arrive to make Japanese whisky a major category like Irish whiskey any time soon, he does see strong potential at the high end.

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