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Business Trends

The Yamazaki crisis -- Japanese whisky is going dry

Producers scramble to avoid cooling a booming market

Hibiki, Yamazaki and other premium Japanese whisky brands are in high demand at duty-free stores in Narita Airport. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- Bottles of high-end Japanese whisky are put on display every day at the entrance of Japan's largest duty-free shop in Haneda Airport.

But there is one problem: it is nearly impossible to buy one.

"These days, we can secure just 12 bottles of Hibiki a day," said store manager Michihiko Takano, as some would-be shoppers turn away on seeing the "sold out" sign. "We put them on the shelves at 7:30 in the morning and they are gone in 10 minutes."

With supply falling rapidly, the search for Hibiki, Yamazaki and other premium Japanese whiskies is becoming something of a treasure hunt for connoisseurs, according to industry officials. In places like Tokyo's upmarket Ginza district -- where stocks of 50,000 yen ($459) vintage Yamazaki are being bought up almost as soon as they are shelved.

The aged varieties are particularly sought after. The online retail price of a 700-milliliter bottle of Suntory's Yamazaki 12 Year Old has risen to above 20,000 yen in recent weeks, according to price comparison site Kakaku.com. That is around 70% higher than two years ago and more than double the company's recommended retail price. The price of rival Nikka's Taketsuru 17 Year Old has also increased by about 10% since the beginning of the year.

The surge in prices has accelerated in recent weeks. Many retailers put the trend down to expectations that Suntory will soon suspend production of several lines.

The bull market represents a significant revival for an industry that was on its knees just a decade ago.

Suntory has led the comeback, but demand has now gone well beyond the company's expectations, and there are concerns that the reversal of the demand-supply gap could pour cold water over a booming market.

"Nobody predicted that this would happen," said a member of staff at a liquor store in Ginza. "For some buyers, Japanese whisky has become an investment, something they can sell later for a higher price. It's a shame that we can't simply enjoy it anymore."

Some have gone so far as to claim we are seeing a bubble. In January, a bottle of 50-year-old Yamazaki went for around $300,000 at an auction by Sotheby's in Hong Kong.

In part, prices are rising so quickly because the supply-demand balance cannot be adjusted overnight. 

"We are investing as much as possible to expand the capacity of our distilleries," said a Suntory spokesperson. "But [supply] does not recover quickly as the product takes time to mature."

"For some products, we are just not able to meet demand."

Ten years ago, the drink had fallen completely out of fashion following a boom in sales of Western liquor in the 1970s and 1980s. Additionally, younger consumers showed little interest in what was seen as a harsh-tasting old man's drink. Consumption fell by nearly a third to 75 million liters between 1989 and 2008, according to data from the National Tax Agency. 

In a bid to reverse its fortunes, Suntory launched a campaign to broaden the appeal of whisky. Much of this centered on promoting the whisky and soda "highball" in bars and restaurants, complete with branded jugs and glasses. The cocktail quickly became a fixture on izakaya pub menus, and Suntory extended its reach into households with a highly successful canned version at supermarkets. 

The aging process has made it difficult for Japanese distillers to adjust the supply-demand balance. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Buoyed by the resurgence, Suntory positioned premium brands like Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu to serve the growing number of highball drinkers looking delve more into whisky.

Demand for high-end products was given another boost by a 2014 television drama based on the story of Masataka Taketsuru, a key member of the Yamazaki distillery and the first Japanese to study the craft of making whisky in Scotland.

Eighty years on from Taketsuru's exploits, Yamazaki and other brands began winning awards at international competitions. Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was named the world's best whisky in Jim Murray's "Whisky Bible 2015," something the author described as a "wake up call" for the Scotch producers who regularly topped the list. The award also came at a time when tourism in Japan was booming. The number of foreign tourists visiting the country tripled between 2012 and 2017.

But observers warn that the current shortage may put the brakes on Japanese whisky's rise on the global stage, which has been a bright spot for the country's alcohol producers as they struggle with falling domestic beer consumption.

Sales of Japanese whisky increased 47.9% to 13.37 million 9-liter cases between 2011 and 2016, according to London-based industry research company IWSR. But the growth rate is expected to slow to 12.9% for the five years until 2021.

"Rapid growth for the last few years has placed excessive demand on aged stocks, which are now severely constrained," said Tommy Keeling, Asia-Pacific president of IWSR. "This will prevent Japanese whisky from growing much until 2020."

Suntory plans to implement a number of strategies to tackle what is an unprecedented challenge. The company has rolled out "non-aged" variations of premium brands, which it says are designed to create a taste better suited for the highball.

It is also seeking to promote imported whiskies such as Jim Beam bourbon. Suntory acquired Beam, the U.S. owner of the brand, in 2014 for $16 billion.

"We want to offer new products without compromising quality, so that this demand, which is finally picking up, will continue to last," said a Suntory spokesperson.

The company has announced plans to invest about $260 million to expand its whisky production capacity.

The boom has rejuvenated Japan's whisky industry on many levels and a number of entrepreneurs have taken over shuttered distilleries and launched their own brands. Venture Whisky, for example, operates a small distillery just north of Tokyo. Its product, Ichiro's Malt, has earned rave reviews across the world and is now highly sought after by collectors.

"The big two players are Suntory and Nikka, who produce consistently great products," said Makiyo Masa, founder of online Japanese whisky retailer Dekanta. "But there are also smaller brands that taste great and are affordable."

Soaring prices of Japanese brands may also persuade consumers to seek alternatives from other countries. IWSR forecasts the global whisky market to expand 13.8% between 2016 and 2021, with 42.9% growth in Ireland and a comeback in Scotch whisky.

Big players in Asia are buying up popular brands in anticipation. Thai Beverage, controlled by billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, in October acquired the largest whisky producer in Myanmar for a reported $1 billion. In 2014, top Philippine spirits maker Emperador bought Scotch whisky maker Whyte & Mackay from United Spirits, an Indian subsidiary of U.K. multinational Diageo.

Suntory stresses that maintaining high standards will be crucial to growth, and that compromising on quality will hurt the Japanese whisky industry in the long run. But the company may have a hard time convincing retailers who feel they could be missing out on an opportunity.

"We are hearing that supply won't recover in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics," said Kozo Ishiki, director of buying and management division at Japan Airport Terminal. "That will be a major headache."

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