The Japanese whisky shortage has been covered in great detail over the last few years, with discontinuations of some of the most popular bottles from Suntory and Nikka making headline news. This was the result of the industry experiencing huge growth since the Yamazaki 12 Year Old picked up a Gold Award at the International Spirit Challenge in 2003. Once the world got a taste for Japanese whisky, the flavours within and the stories behind the liquid, demand quickly soared and it wasn’t long before it outstripped supply.
In the face of the shortage, top bottles including the Hakushu 12, Hibiki 17, Nikka 12 and Nikka Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt expressions were forced out of production. This was clearly not an issue that had been anticipated and drastic steps had to be taken in order to preserve enough maturing stocks to continue offerings such as the Yamazaki, Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malt ranges.
The situation was not helped by the fact that, despite the growing popularity of the product, the amount of whisky being produced in Japan was actually falling until 2008, when just 74,000kl were being distilled, a figure that is just a small fraction of the country’s 1983 peak.
Once the magnitude of the crisis was realised, producers around the nation decided to take action by ramping up production, but until this week it was not known by exactly how much, or how long it would take for the shortage to pass.
Suntory had announced a new $56 million storage facility in August, which pointed towards the fact they were drastically increasing production, however details were scarce, with the drinks giant opting to keep their cards close to their chest.
The news coming out of Nikka this week is more telling. They stated that they will ramp up production by a huge 20%, adding new tanks to their Yoichi distillery and building brand new storage warehouses at their Miyagikyo distillery. The aim is to take the amount of whisky being distilled far and beyond the 1983 peak by 2025.
Their decision to scale up by such a huge amount is likely a result of predictions that the industry will continue to grow around the world. A recent report from Euromonitor suggests that up to 5% growth can be expected in some areas of Europe, while in China and the USA the growth of Japanese whisky could exceed 15%. Staggering figures indeed and ones that the big suppliers will want to ensure they are well-placed to fulfil.
Nikka and Suntory’s plans should mean that the shortage begins to ease by 2025, and by the time 2030 comes around we could even start seeing some of those discontinued favourites back on the shelves.
Not only that, but much more maturing whisky gives the master blenders and distillers in Japan the opportunity to advance the industry even further. By the time the shortage passes, new age-statement expressions are almost a certainty and given the quality of the releases pre-shortage, we should be as excited about these as we are about the return of our old favourites.
New expressions, and the return of old ones, give Japanese whisky fans a lot to look forward to. The future is certainly bright, but it’s also worth noting that the shortage, while not something that anyone wished for, has provided the savvy among us with plenty of opportunities.
The fact that many expressions have been discontinued, means that stocks of these original bottlings will eventually dwindle and, as a result, the prices will rise as the years go by. Even if, or when, these whiskies do return to the store shelves, the pre-shortage bottlings will be worth much more than their newly released counterparts.
This simply comes down to their rarity, and a similar situation can already be witnessed with the likes of the Yamazaki 12, to give one example. The brown box edition, released in the early 2000s, was replaced with a newer version housed inside a new-look black box. The liquid is the exact same, but the fact that the brown box edition is no longer in production automatically turns it into something of a commodity and a collector’s item.
Regardless, we’re all very much looking forward to the end of the whisky shortage, and now that Nikka have set a date, we have something tangible and real to look forward to and get excited about.
This latest announcement goes to confirm what we already imagined to be the case – Japanese whisky is set for a long, enthralling and prosperous future, of which this is only the beginning.