Japanese whisky: a rising opportunity

Operators can cash in by diversifying their malt offer, say drinks firms

Whisky on bar
Offering a selection of whiskies from Japan can help diversify a bar’s offer, said drinks firms

JAPANESE whisky is said to be undergoing some major changes, with aged variants of the spirit now in increasingly short supply, according to recent reports.

A significant rise in demand, coupled with a decline in production in the 1980s due to a drop in consumption in Japan at the time, are said to be major factors behind today’s issue: namely, that due to a lack of matured stock, some aged expressions are being discontinued, with producers increasingly moving towards no-age expressions.

Despite this, there’s still plenty of opportunity to capitalise on the archipelago’s spirit in Scotland’s pubs and bars, drinks firms told SLTN.

Marco Di Ciacca, senior brand manager at Edrington-Beam Suntory UK, which counts the likes of Hibiki, Hakushu and Yamazaki within its drinks portfolio, said although Japanese whisky has been in production for around a century now, “it’s only really in the last decade that we’ve seen the exponential growth in prominence among drinkers outside of Japan”.

The crowning of the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as the World’s Best Whisky in 2015 (according to Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible) proved to be a “watershed moment” for Japanese whisky, according to Di Ciacca, who said it “brought Japanese styles to the attention of drinkers not just in Scotland – and indeed the UK – but around the world”.

It’s only in the last decade we’ve seen growth in prominence among drinkers outside of Japan.

But while this initially raised awareness of the style, Di Ciacca reckons demand has remained strong on the malt’s own merit.

“For me, this demand for the liquid comes as a direct result of the unique way in which Japanese whisky is both made and enjoyed, which is an entirely different experience to that of Scottish, Irish and American styles,” said Di Ciacca.

“Like Scotch and bourbon, the weather, wood and water influence the flavour profile of the whisky, each distinct to Japan and the climate, which gives the liquid a unique sense of place.

“What’s more, the meticulous way in which it is made comes directly from the heart of their culture, combining a mix of tradition and innovation – drawing on the past to inform the future to create a beautifully refined liquid like no other.”

Moira Swan, drinks buyer at Inverarity Morton, agreed, adding that today’s restricted availability of certain aged variants “has given it a certain ‘cult’ status within the whisky market”.

And Swan reckons that the demand for Japanese whisky is something that is here for the foreseeable.

While she believes that the move towards no-age expressions isn’t a temporary measure “as it is becoming more prevalent amongst Scottish malt whisky producers as well, in part driven by trend towards style rather than age and geographic source”, she admitted that she foresees aged expressions coming to the fore in future.

“I believe there will be more investment towards future aged expressions, as this is where the return on investment becomes more profitable for the whole supply chain,” said Swan.

I believe there will be more investment towards future aged expressions.

Regardless of whether Scotland’s pub and bar operators stock aged or no-age expressions of the spirit, Swan reckons offering a Japanese brand “adds diversity… as anyone with a keen interest in whisky would be interested to see and try”.

Di Ciacca of Edrington-Beam Suntory UK agreed, stating that “the key to creating a successful drinks menu is variety and offering consumers the opportunity to experience above and beyond some of the more traditional styles”.

“With each whisky offering a diverse portfolio, combined with a growing demand for choice on the back-bar, it’s more important than ever before to stock a solid range,” he said.

Ultimately, however, it’s vital that staff are clued up on what’s sitting on the back-bar, reckons Swan of Inverarity Morton.

“It is important for staff to be aware of the different styles of whiskies,” said Swan.

“And there are a growing number of brand ambassadors available to impart their knowledge, which can only generate additional sales for operators.”