It was raining on the 13th of May, Saturday morning, but that wasn’t enough to stop the hordes of whisky fans from getting to the Tokyo International BarShow 2017. Umbrellas started to queue a few hours before kick-off, and we were ushered into the main hall at exactly 11.00 am, a feat which demonstrated the world-renowned punctuality of the Japanese.

Guest poured into the Prism Hall at Tokyo Dome and ran quickly to the booths of their favourite distilleries and breweries, only to be, temporarily, turned away. Alcohol couldn’t be served until 11.30, after the opening ceremony was done. So, sulking, we all walked to the main stage and waited for the fun times to start.

Most of the attendees were Japanese, with a very small percentage of gaijin (foreigners) in attendance. As most people from overseas were there representing distilleries or other producers from abroad, one could easily see the lack of different nationalities among guests.

The opening ceremony started with the lovely Clara Bodin presenting the event in fluent Japanese and English. Soon after, all the “major” players came up to the stage. Ichiro Akuto and Yumi Yoshikawa from Chichibu, whisky writer and specialist Dave Broom, and Suntory’s chief blender Shinji Fukuyo were only a few of the whisky “superstars” in attendance.

The people on stage bowed, the crowd clapped and Dave Broom opened the event. He attempted to extract some cheers from the crowd, but this is still Japan, so most people just clapped and smiled shyly. Dave gave up and announced the start of the event. That’s when I ran to the Chichibu booth.

There was a lot going on at the event in terms of cocktails, spirits, beer, soft drinks, and more. But I assume you guys are most interested in the whisky part of the BarShow; I was too so I’m just the guy to talk to!

Here’s what’s happening in the Japanese whisky world based on the Tokyo BarShow 2017.

The Little Guys Are In

So, as I was saying, I ran to the Chichibu stand. But I was still too slow, because the queue was huge! We’ve written a lot about Chichibu on dekantā, and we have known for a while that Ichiro Akuto is a superstar in the Japanese whisky world, but this was a whole new level.

Looking around, anyone could spot the fancier, state-of-the-art Absolut bar, the Johnnie Walker stand, and many, many other industry giants. But the biggest queue was in front of the nice but not too fancy Chichibu stand. Right next to Chichibu was the Mars Shinshu booth which also had quite a few happy visitors queuing up.

This trend was seen throughout the entire event. Sure, Bacardi had the biggest bar, right at the center of the event. Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and other huge brands also had the fanciest, most eye-catching set-ups. But the most popular brands seemed to be the little guys, like Chichibu, Mars, Kavalan, and the Kyoto Distillery.

If was an amazing site to witness – the queue outside Chichibu had to be moved because it was blocking the way, while at the same time, there wasn’t a soul at the Bacardi bar!

Small Distilleries & Huge Innovation

And why was the queue so big at Chichibu?

Well everyone was keen to sample their latest releases: The Chichibu Single Cask blend at 59 per cent ABV, the Chichibu Spanish Oloroso sherry-matured single malt also at 59 per cent, and finally the unbelievable Chichibu single malt aged in an IPA beer cask, also at cask 59.9 per cent strength.

I spoke to Ichiro Akuto himself and he explained the process of beer-cask aging to me. After they remove whisky from a cask, they lend it to a Japanese brewery, in this case the Shigakogen brewery. The brewery then barrel-ages a beer inside, and then returns it to the distillery again. Then Chichibu puts a new whisky inside and lets it mature. Amazing, right?

This IPA Chichibu release blew me away. All the fruity, hoppy, citrusy flavours and aromas from the IPA complimented the maltiness and intensity of the whisky to perfection. What a balance.

This whisky is a fine example of how innovation is at the forefront for small Japanese distilleries. Dave Broom mentioned it in one of his talks as well.

Smaller distilleries are adding younger people to their teams and providing much more training than distilleries in Japan ever have in the past. What’s more, these smaller players have a much more international outlook, and are always seeking ways to improve their whisky and get it across the world.

Although there weren’t that many small producers at the event due to the huge price of securing a booth, it was clear that the small guys are indeed the future of Japanese whisky.

Suntory & Nikka

One thing that was extremely clear at this event is that Japanese whisky is running out. Suntory’s Yamazaki, Hibiki, and Hakushu bottlings of 12, 17, 21, and 25 years are becoming increasingly scarce, as are Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo age-statement releases. After talking to some distributors and wholesalers in Japan the lack of the aforementioned bottles is terrifyingly evident.

For this reason both Suntory and Nikka are focusing on different avenues.

Suntory used the BarShow to promote their new Chita, Hakushu, and Yamazaki releases, all of which were no-age-statement whiskies. I managed to get into a masterclass with Suntory’s chief blender, Shinji Fukuyo, who explained the continuous growth of grain and blended whisky.

He talked about the Suntory-owned Chita distillery and the efforts they are making to improve the grain whisky they produce. I did try the single grain Chita release, which was finished in a red wine cask and I must say, it was sublime and one of the smoothest grain whiskies I’ve tried so far.

While Suntory is focusing on improving and creating new NAS grain and blended whiskies, Nikka is venturing into gin and vodka distillation.

At the event they put a lot of work into pushing their new gin and vodka bottles, which have been added to the Nikka Coffey collection, previously comprising of the Nikka Coffey grain and malt whisky releases.

Gin’s A Thing?

Speaking of gin, the Kyoto Distillery, Japan first gin distillery, was also a hit at the event, with their Kyoto-themed booth. They even had a geisha you could take a selfie with.

Chicago-based Koval was also at the event, and after trying their barrel-aged gin and millet whisky, I was sold!

As mentioned above, Nikka is now distilling gin and Suntory has recently announced they will be doing the same!

Gin and other spirits are really picking up around the world, and some very interesting new flavours are coming onto the market.

Annual Tokyo Show Bottles

That’s a little summary of what went down at the Tokyo BarShow 2017; now for the best part!

Each year a set of extremely limited bottles are released specifically for BarShow attendees. Each guest is only able to purchase one of each bottle and they run out really quickly.

But, because we love you guys, we got a few bottles just for you. Here they are:

Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu Tokyo Bar Show Whisky Expo 2017

Mars Komagatake Tokyo Bar Show Whisky Expo 2017

Karuizawa Vintage 2000 Tokyo Bar Show Whisky Expo 2017

As I mentioned earlier, Japanese whisky is running out. So make sure you get a bottle quickly!
That’s everything for now, and hopefully people who missed the event now have an idea of what was going on at the Tokyo BarShow 2017. More detailed articles on the different producers and events to follow.

George Koutsakis

Despite having a long time love for quality spirits, George truly explored his passion for whisky when he became the assistant manager for the BrewDog Japan franchise, owned by Whisk-e, Japan’s biggest Scotch whisky importer, in Tokyo. During his time in Tokyo he sampled countless high-end Scotch and Japanese whiskies, held numerous beer and whisky tasting events, and built relationships with many sellers, producers, and owners of some of the best whisky and cocktail bars in Tokyo. After his time in Japan, George continued to study whisky and beer production extensively, receiving his Cicerone certificate and becoming an integral part of the team at Dekanta, acting as Creative Director. He now spends his time travelling, sampling great whiskies, and writing all about them.