Does Suntorys Hibiki Harmony exemplify the rising popularity of Japanese whisky?

Does Suntory's Hibiki Harmony exemplify the rising popularity of Japanese whisky?

The Scotch whisky industry has enjoyed many a boom and suffered many a bust. According to Rabobank, the latest surge is squeezing inventories dry, with an estimated 25% drop in malt whisky aged nine years or over between 2007 and 2012.

The most recent rise in demand - which spiked about 18 months ago - caused prices for rare iterations to rocket at auction as whisky became the new Bordeaux in investment terms. Then came the no age statements. As the industry recovers, ages more stock and ups its capacity, consumers have become accustomed to whisky without numbers.

The move coincided with - and possibly aided - the rise and rise of Japanese whisky. Last year, for example, Asahi Breweries saw its Nikka Japanese whisky brand break the 1m-unit barrier in Europe for the first time.

But, reports earlier this year show Japanese whisky is following in Scotch's footsteps: In June, Nikka decided to delist several of its aged products. In a letter to its customers, published by Whisky Cast, the company wrote: "Following the Japanese whisky boom in foreign markets and, due to the growing popularity in the domestic market, the sales of Nikka are growing very fast and the stock levels of Yoichi and Miyagikyo malt whiskies are becoming very low. With the current depletion, Yoichi and Miyagikyo malt whiskies, which are the base of most of our products, will be exhausted in the future and we will be unable to continue the business."

Then there's the investment side. When UK-based Number One Drinks Co released its 41 bottles of Karuizawa 1960 in 2013, the bottles sold for GBP12,500 each. Speaking to just-drinks this week, however, Number One Drinks Co co-founder Marcin Miller said: "They have been changing hands at auction for about EUR30,000."

On 28 August, Hanyu Ichiro's full card series is set to be auctioned at Bonhams in Hong Kong. The guide price is between HKD1.8m (US$232,300) and HKD2.4m. Miller believes that few of the bottles - except, perhaps, the Monochrome Joker - would have cost much more than US$300 in the first place. "Not a bad return," he says.

And, as Miller points out, after the surge in demand and the high auction prices, come the no age statements.

Earlier this year, Suntory launched Hibiki Harmony - a no age statement whisky. Already, demand appears to be catching up with supply here, too. Yesterday, a spokesperson for Beam Suntory told just-drinks: "With the increasing demand for our award-winning Japanese whisky expressions, some products are available in more limited quantities and are harder to find than others."

The spokesperson described Harmony as "completely different" from Hibiki 12. The latest expression is a blend of aged whiskies made up of "at least ten malt and grain whiskies, aged in five different types of casks, from our Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries."

Number One Drinks Co's Miller believes the important question in all of this is: By the time stocks become mature, will the whisky-loving general public have moved on from Japanese whisky?

"I think there's more dynamism in the market these days," he says, pointing to the growing importance of domestic whiskies in many markets, and the growth in other ‘new world’ whiskies, singling out Kavalan in Taiwan or Amrut and Paul John in India. "Everyone is making whisk(e)y," he says.

"Are consumers of Japanese whisky going to sit at home waiting 12 years before they try another Japanese whisky or are they going to move on to a distillery that some hipster has build two miles away from their house?" he asks.

The other problem is that there isn't a large craft movement in Japan. Miller says legislation is partly to blame. "Unlike the US, UK and the rest of Europe, there isn't a slew of small, independent, new craft distillers," he says.

That's not to say, though, that we won't see any age statements at all.

Didier Gorbanzadeh, brand manager for Nikka Europe, says: "As far as the permanent age statement products are concerned, the Taketsuru range will still be available, including the 17-, 21- and 25-year-old bottlings, though under allocation.

"There will also be a new The Nikka 12 years old blend launched in Europe soon, also under allocation."

Beam Suntory's senior director, Gareth Brown, tells just-drinks that the shift away from age statements is a general trend throughout whisk(e)y. "Bourbon hasn't been massively reliant on age statements," he says, "and a new generation of whisky drinkers will be less concerned about age statements."

Nikka's Gorbanzadeh agrees: "Many customers have already been prepared by the previous moves to non age statement. Even within the Nikka range, the Taketsuru 12 years was already replaced by a non age statement in late 2014."

In terms of innovation from Beam Suntory, Brown said both age and non age statement releases are in the "innovation pipeline". The same goes for Nikka with "limited release age statements" expected further down the line. 

After all, age is just a number, isn't it?