My fear is that Japanese whisky will never completely recover from the stock problems they’ve had in recent years. Despite this, popularity has remained high, leading to price hikes while quality had a hard time keeping up. For example, the Miyagikyo Single Malt I’m reviewing today, is stupidly expensive — if you can even find one. I’m sure the high pricing strategy makes sense economically, but what does the current Japanese whisky industry has to offer the average consumer?
I still remember buying a Yamazaki 10 Years at a wholesale retailer back when I limited myself to 40 or maybe 50 euros a bottle (so, a long time ago). Or swapping a sample of the Yamazaki 18 Years for a sample of the Talisker 18 Years. Now you’d be laughed out of the room for even suggesting such a trade, but at the time it seemed fair. Japanese whisky was recognized the world over for its quality, but still far from being the commodity it is today.
Nowadays, the shelves of Japanese whisky in most whisky shops, even the truly good ones, are filled by and large with blends. I have no qualms with blended whisky, but my attitude changes as soon as it is a blended whisky that presents itself as Japanese, but is actually a mixture of Scottish, Canadian and Japanese whisky. Or, even worse, there’s no Japanese whisky in there at all. While I suspect many of my readers are aware of this practice, most consumers aren’t.
And yes, I know of the measures taken by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association. But those measures have so many loopholes and shortcuts, that I’m not sure they’ll make much of a difference. Hopefully they’ll serve as a starting off point, because much stricter legislation is needed. Or any legislation for that matter — right now there’s nothing more than guidelines for Japanese whisky producers.
So, while the lineups of the big producers like Nikka and Suntory lack a certain attraction, the fake Japanese offerings are often even less worthy of your time. There are exceptions; most recently one of the first ever releases by Shizuoka, the Prologue K, which blew me away. But while there’s quality Japanese whisky around, affordability is now a lost concept.
Sure, the average Japanese whisky, such as the Miyagikyo I’m reviewing today, is of good quality. That’s not the problem. But because of hype and scarcity, they’re way overpriced and can’t compete on value with most Scottish, Irish or American whisky. The Japanese whiskies that are able to reach lofty heights, such as Chichibu, are reserved for the very wealthy. Or the not-so wealthy that are still crazy enough about whisky to get sucked in every once in a while. I myself am occasionally part of the latter group.
But what then remains of the Japanese whisky scene? Not much, I would think. Nothing that really appeals to a larger audience. There’s no middle ground. It’s either fake Japanese whisky, average Japanese whisky that’s more expensive than comparable whiskies from other countries, or great Japanese whisky that’s astronomically priced. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
I’d love to hear from other people that see a way out of this conundrum. Or from people that think my analysis is completely wrong, because that would mean there is good, affordable Japanese whisky around. For now, let’s dive into the Miyagikyo Single Malt, shall we. This single malt at least meets the criteria of Japanese whisky set by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association. But you’d have to visit Nikka’s website to find out, because god forbid they’d mention it on the label.
Miyagikyo Single Malt (45%, OB, 2021)
Nose: After an initial hit of vanilla it opens up into sandalwood, red apple peel and jammy quinces. A whisper of floral notes, then some sultanas and finally lime as well.
Taste: Somewhat creamy. Opens up on vanilla again, followed by dates and citrus, but supported by warming spices such as cinnamon and pepper. Finally just a whiff of marmalade and figs.
Finish: Lingering spices and ripe apples, with just a tinge of brown sugar.
The price of this bottle in Japan at the supermarket is around 30-40 usd last time I bought one. Is it not just the case that importers, distributors and retailers are marking it up that makes the price so high to the end user? If the inverse was true Japanese locals would be paying 100 usd for a bottle of Johnnie walker black but they aren’t…isn’t this the real issue?
It might be, but I doubt it is that simple. Also, then when was the last time you bought a bottle? 😉
Hi Thijs, current Japanese shop price is just over 4000 yen including sales tax, so around 35 euro. German retail is about 59 euro. I always get these in Germany.
I do agree with most of your words though there certainly is great single malt out there that in Japan costs about 50 euro like the Mars special editions.
A regular chichibu release is about 80-95 euro in Japan. The first 10 was 120 euro.
So it’s the mark-up that does heavily influence the price in Europe. And of course availability with chichibu and Yamazaki and Hakushu.
Thanks for your insight Niels!