Few could have foreseen the astronomical rise in demand for Japanese whisky that has occurred in the last five years. Though its popularity has risen gradually since the early 2000s, it was not until recently that the world began to really appreciate the craftsmanship and creativity that goes into making, and ageing, the spirit. Nowadays, with demand very often exceeding supply, the most collectible Japanese whisky rivals even the highest-end Scotch in terms of price and exclusivity. Here are some of the most expensive, and coveted, Japanese whiskies the world has seen.
Any discussion on the world’s most coveted Japanese whisky would be remiss not to talk about the darling of the industry, Karuizawa.
Karuizawa was first produced as a blending whisky in 1955, but only began to gain a reputation when the distillery started bottling single malts in the late 1980s. Even then, in the infancy of the Japanese whisky industry, the tiny Karuizawa struggled to stay afloat – and the distillery was demolished in 2011.
During the subsequent Japanese whisky boom, Karuizawa has been among the world’s most renowned whiskies. Famed for its rich, spicy sherried notes and chocolatey smoke, on the rare occasion a bottle is opened to taste, the reviews are raving.
When the distillery closed, its remaining casks were bought by a number of companies and individuals and have been bottled over the years, often in limited edition collector’s sets. Among the most popular of these have been the Golden and Emerald Geishas, and dekantā’s own Cities of Japan bottling, which celebrated six of Japan’s most vibrant cities.
At the start of this year, dekantā were delighted to release our second independent bottling of Karuizawa. From two sherry casks of 35-year-old whisky we created 180 bottles, divided into four iconic, limited designs bound in the ancient Japanese art of decorative rope bondage, Shibari.
Each bottle is elegantly hand-tied with small ropes in a precise Shibari-style knot pattern. The four colours – red, white, black and blue – are considered the four oldest colours in the Japanese language, and each has a significant meaning in the art of Shibari: red for passion and self-sacrifice; white for purity; black for dignity; and blue for stability.
A ballot was held for potential buyers, and a staggering 4,000 entries were made for the 45 sets available, highlighting the huge disparity between demand for, and supply of, this super-rare whisky.
The existing supply of Karuizawa dwindles more with each day, but there are still a small number of casks waiting to be bottled. Most of these are still owned by whisky enthusiast Eric Huang, who has expressed an intention to bottle and release the very last cask at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Keep an eye out for any future releases, as these may well be among the last!
Like Karuizawa, the now-closed Hanyu distillery is one of Japan’s most renowned. After the distillery closed in 2000, all of the remaining casks from Hanyu were bought by Ichiro Akuto – ‘the rockstar of the Japanese whisky industry’ – and have been bottled gradually as single malts over the years, with each named after playing cards.
When the first four ‘cards’ (Ace of Spades, Queen of Hearts, King of Diamonds, and Jack of Clubs) were released in 2005, they sold far more quickly than Ichiro had expected, and by 2015, Bonhams auctioned a full set of 54 (13 each of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades, plus two jokers) for $480,000 (£370,000).
Nowadays, bottles from the Ichiro’s Malt Card Series are incredibly hard to find. The Jokers of the set are the most in demand, having been bottled last, with the ‘Monochrome’ single cask Joker alone fetching upwards of a staggering £9,000 at auction.
Casks made from Japanese mizunara oak are notoriously difficult to age whisky in. Translating literally as ‘water oak’, the wood has a higher moisture content than American or European oak, is soft and porous, prone to leakage and is damaged easily. Mizunara trees need to be at least 200 years old before they can be used to make casks, which cost more than $6,000 (£4,500).
For this reason, most Japanese whisky is aged either in American or European oak, and if mizunara is used at all, the whisky will be rested in the casks for just a few months, leaving behind only harsh, unpleasant woody flavours.
However, if whisky is kept carefully in a mizunara cask for long enough, the flavours imparted by the oak are well worth the effort.
The very best example of what Japanese oak can do can be seen in the Yamazaki Mizunara series, and the latest edition from 2017 has gone on to be one of the world’s most coveted whiskies. A full 18 years maturation in Japanese oak gave fantastic flavours of coconut, banana, and Japanese incense, cinnamon and marmalade. Whisky enthusiasts the world over are still scrabbling to get their hands on one of the 1,500 bottles that were produced, with some selling at auction for as much as £2,400.
Eigashima, situated right on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, is a lesser-known Japanese distillery. Their whisky production is small, as the business focuses on the production of the more popular sake and shochu, and the majority of malt whisky that Eigashima do produce goes toward their Akashi White Oak blend.
Dekantā‘s first ever independent bottling, ‘The Kikou’, was created to celebrate our third anniversary. This truly unique bottling of Eigashima was aged in a particularly special cask – one that had previously held whisky from Port Ellen, a long-closed distillery on Islay whose heavily peated whiskies are renowned the world over.
The resulting whisky is astonishing. The Kikou is only six and a half years old, but bursts with complex flavours – light citrus and toffee complement Eigashima’s token salinity, and there is a fruity campfire smokiness soaked up from the Port Ellen casks.
The Kikou has gone on to gain international acclaim, having won an award at the Independent Bottlers Challenge – and with only 300 bottles made, there will never be another whisky quite like it.
We will, however, be releasing a second bottling in the Ki series very soon – keep an eye out for an announcement later this year!