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Producing great whisky is more than just the construction of elegant flavors, it also involves a fair degree of fortune telling.
The liquid that makes its way into a bottle today was born many years ago. Back then, a distillery had to determine how much alcohol to apportion into barrels as a projection of imminent demand. In the early 2000s, nobody accurately foresaw the impending surge in the popularity of Japanese whisky. What was then regarded as a cultural novelty has ballooned into one of the world’s most sought-after spirits. And now there’s hardly enough to go around.
“When we compare our 2017 shipment to the US versus shipment in 2013, we have grown over 178%,” said Naoki Tomoyoshi, who heads business development for Nikka—one of Japan’s largest whiskey exporters. “We have implemented an allocation system in every market to synchronize the pace of sales and production. This was necessary for us because, unfortunately, our production 10 to 15 years ago was very limited and therefore we were not prepared for today’s strong demand.
Although contemporary connoisseurs are clamoring for Japanese single malt (a barley-derived style of whisky historically associated with Scotland), Nikka has parried the uproar by stirring up considerable interest in its Coffey Grain release. Made mainly from corn, its slightly sweeter flavor resonates with American palates while endearing itself to cocktail culture. There’s also a lot of it; production involves a massive high-yield vessel known as a Coffey still. It puts off a liquid that reaches redolence at around 5 to 7 years of barrel aging. The average single malt from Japan, by comparison, sees at least a dozen.
Suntory, meanwhile, is trying to steer sippers away from statements of age, altogether. Japan’s biggest whisky maker recently phased out Hakashu 12 Year Old, a lightly smoky single malt from the mountainous region west of Tokyo. The company is deliberately holding back older stock from depletion, opting instead to fraction it off into blends: whiskys that combine single malt and grain whisky into a gentle balance of flavors. In 2016, they unveiled Toki as an entry-level example. Bartenders were quick to stock it on shelves.
“When mixing with Japanese whisky, I prefer something like Suntory Toki, with a bit of a more persistent profile,” said Aaron Polsky, beverage director at Harvard + Stone in Los Angeles. “It’s easy to get and surprisingly affordable, and that light smoke from the Hakushu in the blend really pops in cocktails.”
Later this year Toki will be joined by Hibiki Blender’s Choice, a higher end non-age statement blend, debuting exclusively in Japan. Looking for a leg up on its competition, Nikka just launched its answer stateside in the form of "From the Barrel"—a $65 blend of over 100 different malt and grain whiskeys from the company’s dual production facilities.
Japanese distillers have traditionally viewed blended spirit as the highest form of premium whiskey. These new, elegant entries, then, should hardly be seen as inferior substitutes. Besides, it’s not as if the single malt diehards have any choice in the matter.
“Although we are making efforts to increase production capacity, it will take years for the [single malt] being produced today to be ready to sell,” said Tomoyoshi. “We do not like to sacrifice quality for speed.”
So for now, all you can do is wait, and hope that Japanese distillers become as good at predicting the future of whisky as they are at making it.