Spotlight - Whisky from the Land of the Rising Sun
It may not be as well known as Scotch or bourbon but Japanese whisky is winning plaudits for quality and gaining ground internationally. Marcin Miller believes the growing popularity of Japanese cuisine and the whisky drinker's inherent thirst for something new offer huge potential for Japanese whisky, and after years of hiding their light under a bushel Japan's distillers appear ready to raise their profile on the world stage.
To the casual observer, Japanese whisky has sometimes been seen as something of a joke, like Welsh claret or Norwegian olives. But the reality is very different.
Take a look at the recent World Whiskies Awards and you will find that two out of four category winners (ignoring the whisky liqueur category) came from Japan. The world's best blended whisky, according to the awards, is Hibiki 30-Year-Old from Suntory. The world's best blended malt whisky is Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 Years Old from Nikka.
But it is perhaps not all that surprising that the wider world is yet to appreciate the quality of Japanese whisky. There has always been a reticence amongst Japanese distillers to market their whisky internationally. It is unclear whether this springs from natural diffidence or from a commercial awareness of the principle of cost-per-opportunity. However, it is clear that interest in these products is growing.
Awareness of Japanese culture is arguably higher than ever before, particularly in the UK where it is now possible to buy sushi at all major supermarkets and where many of the highest-profile restaurant openings are Japanese; Zuma, Umu and Roka to name but three. From Kill Bill to Lost in Translation, Japanese culture seems mainstream now rather than alien, cool rather than scary.
Certainly in the UK Japanese whisky is showing strong growth, albeit from a very small base. Nicki Daw, UK marketing manager for Suntory Whiskies, sees Japanese whisky breaking into the mainstream. "Based on Suntory's success in the UK, Japanese whisky is performing well at triple-digit growth," she says. "More and more people are aware of its existence and Yamazaki 10-year-old has two mainstream grocery listings to its name, having been listed in both Sainsbury's and now in Tesco."
Mature European markets have a genuine thirst for interesting and unusual whiskies which Japanese single malt can certainly slake.
As consumers become more sophisticated about food and drink they will continue to seek out a point of difference. The qualities of precision and discipline evident in Japanese cooking are apparent in the making of Japanese whisky. Sushi's simplicity is an expression of the complexity of the chef's art and the best Japanese whiskies demonstrate excellent balance and finesse. The combination of Japanese whisky with food is exceptional.
According to Dave Broom, editor of Whisky Magazine (Japan), "when matching Japanese whisky with sushi you can taste everything that is going on. The precision of the food and the complexity of the whisky are a perfect complement and lead to an enhanced, magnified experience." It may be that Japanese whisky is at the vanguard of welcoming whisky to the gourmet's table.
Developing whisky markets may hold the key. Relations between Japan and China are improving, giving Japanese whisky a route into the tenth biggest market in the world. Moscow has a successful chain of Japanese restaurants and Suntory has stated a desire to have 10% of the Russian whisky market by 2010.
However, in a competitive spirits market Japanese whisky faces some hefty challenges, chief of which is an overall lack of brand equity. As yet, there is no recognisable Japanese whisky "superbrand". This makes the category attractive to the enthusiast/connoisseur, wooed by the esoteric, but ultimately will prevent world domination as, to date, no single marketing department has committed the budget required to build a global player. A generic campaign is unlikely though could pay dividends.
But with opinion-formers at all levels beginning to sing the praises of Japanese whisky, its stock is set to rise. And Japanese whisky may even be able to take advantage of the short supply of Scotch whisky being forecast by some observers. The huge investment being made in expanding production in Scotland is based on projections of continued growth in new markets. But some suggest that there will be excess demand before that new capacity comes online, leaving the way open for other whiskies to capitalise. On the volume side, there are well-placed US and Irish whiskies in the shape of Jack Daniel's and Jameson. But at the premium end, there could be an expanding niche for top-quality Japanese whisky.
And as for the idea of Japanese whisky being seen as a joke, competitors in Scotland, Ireland and the US would do well to remember that in the 1970s Australian wine was viewed with nothing short of disdain in international wine markets and within a few short years had taken the world by storm.
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