Why Is Japanese Whisky So Expensive and Is It Worth the Price?

It depends on who you ask.

Photo: kakub1n/Getty Images

Drinks trends come and go, but the one surrounding Japanese whisky doesn't seem to be dying down anytime soon. As Japanese distillers look towards perfection, their whisky has grown into a vibrant category of its own, imbued with flavor, history and skill.

As more eyes turn towards Japanese whisky, certain questions start to arise. Some revolve around production, flavors, and methods of distillation. One question, however, has been prevalent in recent years, resounding across the globe.

Why do Japanese whisky price tags keep rising?

Lovers of the spirit buy it, try it, collect it, but most don't know of the milestones that made prices skyrocket like they have. Much of the whisky is, as expected, delicious. The bottles and labels are gorgeous, and the stories behind them often resemble fairy tales.

The above, however, doesn't explain why single bottles are selling today for over $100,000.

A Pricy Tale

The best way to understand the rise in price is to look at Japanese whisky throughout its difficult history. From the late 1930s to the early 1980s, whisky consumption in Japan boomed, growing yearly. Everyone chose whisky, be it with water or on the rocks; the Japanese population swore by it.

The late 1980s, however, brought about the boom of shochu, a light, Japanese spirit distilled from rice. The rise of beer followed soon after.

Suddenly, whisky was overshadowed and during this consumption "crash," many distilleries shut down. Others struggled on, greatly reducing their annual production. Surprisingly, the previous sentence alone fully defines why Japanese whisky has shot up in price today.

During the slump of whisky in Japan, producers didn't fill many casks. Nikka, owner of the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries, completely halted production for several years. A move unheard of today.

The years rolled on uneventfully for whisky in Japan, until 2003, when Suntory's Yamazaki 12-Year-Old won a Gold at the International Spirits Challenge. A year later the company's Hibiki 30-Year-Old won a Trophy in the same competition. Japanese whisky hasn't stopped since. Best grain whisky, single malt and blended whisky awards pour in each year from some of the biggest, most competitive categories in the industry. Even skeptics of whisky accolades can't deny it: When a category is awarded globally, each and every year, there's a reason.

With awards came demand, and it just kept coming. Distillery warehouses, however, now stood rather bare when global demand started rising, a result of the slump in consumption decades before. Whisky from some of the shut-down distilleries, like Hanyu and Karuizawa, wasn't even being made anymore.

Record-Breaking Prices

Karuizawa whisky is a prime example. Shut down at the turn of the millennium, the remaining stock was bought up and the site was, eventually, dismantled.

The romantic image of a distillery by the active Asama volcano, the tale of whisky never to be made again, the lost stills, it all came into play. Karuizawa expressions started showing up at auction, with each bottling further pushing prices to the limits. Hundreds of dollars quickly turned to thousands.

Spring 2017 brought about the largest auction of Karuizawa whisky to date. During it, the 52-Year-Old Karuizawa Archer went for $128,000, breaking the European record of the most expensive single bottle sold at auction. In 2016, the Yamazaki 50-Year-Old had broken the global record, selling for $129,000.

Again, on Jan 30th this year, the Yamazaki 50 once again smashed the world record of the most expensive bottle ever sold at auction, going for a staggering $299,000. Yep, you read that right.

The Japanese whisky industry has created a special type of collector. Many of them stop at nothing to own the bottle they want, and care little of the cost. These bottles will never be opened or drank, but instead kept and traded in the years to come. Why? Well, because it's impossible to make a loss.

As auctions bring in bigger and bigger winnings, the rarer bottlings drag up the flagship, best-sellers, fans have enjoyed for years. A normal blend or 12-year-old whisky in Japan sells for almost double what it would in the Scotch industry. Take the globally loved Yamazaki 12, the Hibiki 17, and Hakushu 12. All rising.

Small allocations of these best-selling bottles are released annually, strategically keeping fans excited, without giving away too much. These usually sell out instantly and quickly reach the secondary market.

While stock by the large distilleries in Japan will be replenished by the 2020 Olympics, prices will most likely remain the same, perhaps even continue to rise. Through a history of ups and downs, Japanese whisky has come to be associated with rarity, luxury and quality.

Is It Worth It?

The rarer Japanese whisky bottles are seen as investments. Few collectors across the world can afford to crack open a bottle of 50-Year-Old Yamazaki, and even they probably do so with a heavy heart.

The thought of the future, where a $10,000 bottle will sell for $100,000 deters most collectors from consuming their prized bottles. Looking at Japanese whisky history, it's an understandable approach.

This part of the industry, however, robs drinkers of the ability to drink quality whisky at an affordable price. Prices of rarer bottles ultimately affect the more commercial expressions.

On the other hand, the rare, aged bottlings represent a part of Japanese history. Many of the casks were filled just after WWII and present revived passion during the aftermath of war.

Love it or hate it, whisky, especially that hailing from Japan, is changing from a drink to an investment. Several companies, including Dekanta and the Whisky Exchange, have recently introduced ballots to distribute rare Karuizawa bottlings, to give everyone a fair chance of acquiring a bottle.

Price isn't even the obstacle anymore, as thousands of people subscribe to "win" a chance of purchasing bottles worth thousands of dollars.

Is it worth it? It depends on what Japanese whisky means to you.

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