At the start of the Japanese whisky famine, the country’s largest producers signalled that they were aiming to have rebuilt their stocks of aged whisky in time for the Tokyo Summer Olympics. The milestone event would provide both an influx of eager thirsty tourists as well as a global spotlight on the country’s culture – of which distilling has increasingly become a celebrated part of – perhaps even more so outside of Japan than within in. Events in 2020 have necessitated that all these things have been put on ice – until July 2021. And in whisky terms, I guess we’ll have to wait to see whether the publicised stockpiling of whisky reserves took place as planned.
From the outside looking in – Japan still appears to be largely devoid of the releases which put it on the whisky map two decades ago. Whilst new distilleries commence the release of spirit and very early whisky releases (all of which are snaffled up – some at absurd prices - and that's saying nothing of Chichibu), I’d posit that the age statement bottlings from Suntory and Nikka are not suddenly going to be appearing back on shelves once the Olympic torch has been lit. The once sub-£40 Yamazaki and Hakushu 12 year olds – previously staple entry points into Japanese whisky alongside - are still highly sought and fought after and are on a very limited allocation – even internally within Japan. And indeed, the equivalent age-statement ‘starters’ from Nikka’s Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries are not even being produced.
Even should a glut of liquid, held back over the past decade, be released unto the market, I see little chance in it hanging around long enough for everyone to proclaim that the Japanese whisky market that once was is back. Things have changed. Not just in capacity and demand terms – but also in mindsets.
Releases from the established distilleries used to be incredible value – Yamazaki 18 year old - £60. I should be bought more. A lot more. Ah hindsight. But recent bottlings are not priced (particularly for the wider global market) at such an amenably low RRP. When new releases are finally introduced to plug the missile-like gap in largest distilleries’ ranges – don’t expect history to repeat itself. There’s a new market for Japanese whisky - new producers are only too aware of this as well as the prospect of never being able to meet persistently buoyant global demand. Such is the price of fame.
This all said, folks should not be looking at Japanese whisky as a phenomenon in isolation – Japan’s rich and varied culture has been eagerly assimilated by much of the western world. From food though video games, movies and animation – aspects of Japanese society and interest in Japan more broadly has been indelibly fused into our increasingly multicultural societies. Of course, this is selective at best – I’m not seeing an associated increase in Shinto - however, it is indicative of the wider potential of Japan – with whisky as a small, but noteworthy part of a much greater whole. A whole which is now arguably more than just “Suntory time”.
We’re almost at the close of the Boutique-y Whisky Company 2020 Advent calendar – and day 23 puts forward one last big surprise before the finale. Japanese Blended Whisky #1 21 year old Batch 5 is a mysteriously composed offering that one would imagine given its age derives from either the Suntory or Nikka stables. However at the same time, there’s nothing to either confirm or deny this – and Japanese distilleries are known for not sharing liquid between them – thus blends, for the most part tend to be focussed around the components created solely by a single producer.
Batch 5 is a release of 3,257 bottles, delivered at 47.7% ABV. Like most Japanese whisky (and indeed some Japanese whisky, which isn’t actually Japanese at all), it’s far from cheap. As of writing there just one bottle left at Master of Malt for £178.95. The previously released Batch 2 – offered at the same ABV is also still available – for the same price.
Nose: Softly reduced fruits – cooking apples, redcurrants and blackberries, all lightly stewed in simple syrup. Prominent marzipan and royal icing are joined by Cadbury’s Crunchie bars, whilst fruitcake is joined by waxed jackets and a glass of mocha. Running throughout – the slightly hint of saltpeter. Reduction adds a variety of floral elements – jasmine and sunflowers alongside brassy polish.
Taste: Toffee and creamy butterscotch are livened by orange peels, whilst cinnamon-imbued honey sits with milk chocolate, almond paste and gingerbread. The development ably straddles the line of sweetness, negotiating burnt brulee sugars and cola bottle sweets whilst also stopping off for golden rolling tobacco and cracked cashew and hazel nuts. Water presents soft honey and apple compote alongside orange barley water.
Finish: Medium with cask char and residue white pepper alongside chocolate shavings.
Boutique-y’s fifth batch of Japanese Blended Whisky #1 offers a textbook equilibrium across its fruits, sugars and floral asides. It screams quality throughout – and is highly indicative as to why Japanese whisky as a category has become both celebrated and infamously expensive. As Advent treats go - quite treaty. But in all regards - quite excellent.
Sorren has also nearly completed his annual calendar review – you can read his thoughts on this dram and all the preceding ones over at OCD Whisky.
Review calendar provided by Atom Brands