The supply shortage of well-aged Japanese whisky isn’t exactly news. It’s something we were talking about three years ago. At the time, Nikka decimated its entire lineup of age statement single malts, focusing instead on no-age statements (NAS) and their Coffey Grain whisky. At the same time Suntory had just introduced Hibiki Japanese Harmony to ward off the disappearance of Hibiki 12 Year. The debuts of Nikka Coffey Malt and Suntory Toki were still a year away.
In the time since, things haven’t improved. Three years obviously isn’t enough time to put a dent into a 12, 17, or 18 year production cycle. “We can’t make enough right now, because we didn’t make enough 10 years ago,” said Mike Miyamoto, Suntory global ambassador, during a visit to the Yamazaki distillery in 2016. “Very simple.”
LONG LIVE HAKUSHU 12 & HIBIKI 17
Nevertheless, Japanese whisky drinkers were at least hoping for the status quo—as scarce and allocated as it was—to remain. Instead, Suntory levied another blow with its recent announcement regarding two beloved age statemtents. We must bid adieu to both Hakushu 12 Year and Hibiki 17 Year.
Hibiki Trio: 12, 17, and 21 Years
The latter is especially disheartening, as the 17 Year has long been seen as the epitome of the Hibiki range. At a recent Suntory whisky tasting, a high-ranking representative commented that the 12 Year never was a perfect fit with the ideals of the lineup, represented by the 17 Year and 21 Year. He explained further that even with an increase in supply, there weren’t plans to bring the 12 Year back.
Left unsaid then was that the remaining Hibiki age statement whiskies were viewed as untouchable. The representative must be great at poker though, because it took less than two months from that conversation for the 17 Year to be axed.
THE WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART
During a recent trip to Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries, the company had little to say on the issue of future supply. Naoki Tomoyoshi, a member of the company’s international team, noted that production has increased by as much as 50% in recent years. But he also stressed not to expect anything before, or for, the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
NAS Nikka Single Malts / Photo Credit: Jake Emen
By referencing a date just two years in the future though, Tomoyoshi left open the possibility that perhaps it wouldn’t take much longer, maybe five years, for Nikka age statement single malts to begin a trickling return. That may have only been me willing myself to be hopeful on the matter. (It was also an interesting point of reference, as a friend of mine recently discovered that Chichibu hopes to unveil a 10 year-old whisky in 2020.)
Nikka has a motherload of 3,000 different batches of whisky in its warehouses, offering its blenders an enviable assortment. But they also have the unenviable task of having to find replacements when prized, older batches are finished off. “They have to replace that piece of the puzzle,” Tomoyoshi says. And even NAS blends consist of divergent year-to-year formulas to reach a consistent end result. As a case in point, the current Yoichi Single Malt includes parcels of 20 individual malt whiskies.
BLENDS AND SINGLE GRAINS TO THE RESCUE
It’s not all bad news, though. Suntory Toki has a wider presence in the states than any Japanese whisky has ever had. And Suntory is pushing it as far as it can, with U.S. ambassador Johnnie Mundell recently telling us, “We’re trying to turn America into a highball culture.” For its part, Nikka is bringing its popular From the Barrel Whisky to the states, a bartender-favorite around the world, and its Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt are both delicious and accessible.
Suntory Whisky Toki highball / Photo Credit: Gabi Porter
Three years ago, we wondered if there would be consumer backlash against the disappearing age statements. We now know that clearly wasn’t the case, as supply has only diminished further. At the same time, affordable NAS replacements have been well-received. What’s next? How long will it take Japanese whisky to begin returning in full force?
We know it won’t be for the 2020 Olympics. Perhaps we can hold out hope for the just announced 2026 World Cup in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. And good news there, soccer fans and whisky drinkers, as the host is a mandatory inclusion in the field. Here’s to hoping we have a pour of a special dram to celebrate. This year? I’m rooting for Iceland and drinking highballs.
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