A victim of its own success, top-shelf Japanese single malt is harder to come by than ever—but we've uncovered the prime spots to sip it.
Courtesy Hoshinoya Kyoto
When Bar Gyu+ in Hokkaido’s Niseko ski resort, an hour’s plane ride north of Tokyo, began offering domestic single-malt whiskies a decade ago, interest was low. “People would say: ‘Never heard of it. Give me the Macallan,’” recalls co-owner Ioanna Morelli. These days, lines form outside the bar in subzero temperatures. Morelli and her husband, Hisashi Watanabe, have amassed hundreds of bottles from every distillery in the country, and from some that closed long ago. But when customers ask where they can buy a bottle for themselves, her answer is “You can’t.”
Japan is in the grip of a whisky shortage, as distillers struggle to deal with a surge in demand. Blame the avalanche of trophies from the World Whiskies Awards. Blame national broadcaster NHK, whose six-month TV series about the life of Nikka Whisky founder Masataka Taketsuru kindled pride in homegrown spirits. And blame reviewer Jim Murray, who named a Yamazaki sherry cask his 2015 whisky of the year. It now goes for up to $4,000 a bottle.
The big two distiller groups responded by pivoting to grain whiskies and malts without age statements. Nikka has axed its lineup of aged single malts; Suntory still ships a few, but a company spokesperson says, with a bit of understatement, that “some of them might be hard to find.”
The good news: Five new distilleries are opening in Japan. Their products won’t be ready for several years, but meanwhile you could always try a Macallan.
Looking for that long-lost whisky? Click through to see some of the best bars in Japan that may just have a dram or two to share with you left, if you ask. Nicely.