Liquid Assets: Investing in Japanese Whisky Collections

Liquid Assets:  Investing in Japanese Whisky Collections
Karuizawa Thousand Arrows Source - Christie's

In the realm of spirits, Japanese whiskies have carved out a niche of their own. Despite being less than a century old, they have ascended to a level of desirability that rivals the centuries-old tradition of Scotch whisky. This article, drawing from the insights provided by Christie’s guides 'How to collect Japanese whisky' and 'Collecting guide: Single malt Scotch and Japanese whiskies', as well as the 'Sotheby's Wine & Spirits Market Report 2022', aims to guide you through the intricate art of collecting Japanese whiskies.

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The Birth of Japanese Whisky

Shinjiro Torii Source

As detailed in Christie’s guide 'How to collect Japanese whisky', the story of Japanese whisky is one of vision, passion, and a bit of friendly rivalry. Shinjiro Torii, a businessman with a dream, established Japan’s first malt whisky distillery, Yamazaki, in 1923. He sought to create a whisky that would appeal to the delicate Japanese palate. To achieve this, he partnered with Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist who had apprenticed at distilleries in Scotland and brought back invaluable knowledge of whisky production. However, Taketsuru harbored his own dream of creating a whisky that was truer to its Scottish roots. This led him to establish his own distillery, Nikka, in 1934, marking the beginning of a rivalry that continues to shape the industry today.

Masataka Taketsuru Source

The Craft of Japanese Whisky Making

The process of making Japanese whisky, as described in the Christie’s guides, is a meticulous one. It starts with grain, usually malted barley, which is steeped in water, kiln-dried, ground into a grist, mashed with hot water, and distilled twice. The resulting spirit, known as 'new make', is then aged in wooden barrels. These are often second-hand bourbon casks made from American oak, which impart sweet, fruity, vanilla, and spicy overtones to the whisky, as well as a golden honey color. Some Japanese distilleries also use European oak, specifically old sherry butts from southern Spain, which due to their finer grain and tannins, create a darker variety of whisky, often defined by heady aromatics and intense flavors.

The Importance of Ageing

Since 2021, Japanese whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years, as mandated by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association. However, premium whiskies are often left to mature for over a decade, allowing them to take on the character of their barrels and develop a rich depth of flavor.

The Unique Character of Japanese Whisky

The environment in which whisky is produced plays a significant role in its character. Japan's warmer, more humid summers and higher altitude distilleries contribute to a unique ageing process. This, along with the use of imported barley from Scotland and the unique mineral profile of Japan’s spring water, gives Japanese whiskies their distinct flavor. Some distilleries even age whisky in mizunara oak barrels or filter through bamboo, adding another layer of complexity to the final product.

The Titans of Japanese Whisky

When it comes to the major players in Japanese whisky, Suntory and Nikka lead the way. Suntory’s most famous whisky is Yamazaki, a single malt that is still produced in Japan’s first commercial distillery. In both 2011 and 2012, Yamazaki 25 Year Old was named the best single-malt whisky in the world at the World Whiskies Awards. Nikka, on the other hand, is known for its Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts, which are produced in Taketsuru’s distilleries.

The Hidden Gems of Japanese Whisky

However, the world of Japanese whisky isn't limited to these giants. Smaller and rarer producers like Chichibu, Hanyu, and Karuizawa also offer intriguing options for collectors. Chichibu, established by Ichiro Akuto in 2004, is known for its experimental use of domestic barley and Japanese beer barrels. Despite their limited production, these whiskies have won numerous awards and are highly sought after by collectors.

Karuizawa Whisky: From Legacy to Collector’s Treasure
Karuizawa, a Japanese whisky, soared in value post-closure. Eclipsed by industry decline, its ghost distillery allure now captivates collectors.
Chichibu Whisky: Japan’s New Whisky Vanguard
Chichibu Distillery, founded by Ichiro Akuto in Saitama, Japan, blends tradition with innovation, offering premium, limited-batch whiskies.
Hanyu Whisky: From Family Legacy to Collector’s Gem
Hanyu Whisky: Born in Saitama, it faced closure amid market slumps but lived on through Ichiro Akuto’s efforts. Its ‘Card Series’ is legendary.

The Rising Value of Japanese Whisky

As per the 'Sotheby's Wine & Spirits Market Report 2022', the value of Japanese whiskies has been on a steady rise. The unique characteristics and limited availability of certain bottles have made them highly prized among collectors, leading to a surge in prices at auctions. The report highlights that the market for Japanese whiskies is not just limited to Japan but has expanded globally, with collectors from around the world seeking to add these unique spirits to their collections.

The Yamazaki 50 Year Old 3rd Release 2011 57.0 abv NV (1 BT70) Source - Sotheby's
A bottle of Yamazaki 55 Year Old 46.0 abv was sold in New York for $595,200. This was the 6th highest sale in the spirits category.
The Yamazaki 50 Year Old 3rd Release 2011 57.0 abv was sold in Paris for $422,815. This was the 10th highest sale in the spirits category.
These sales indicate a strong market interest in Japanese whiskies, particularly those from the Yamazaki brand.

Collecting Japanese Whisky: A Beginner's Guide

For those new to collecting Japanese whiskies, it's important to understand the different types of whisky available. As in Scotland, the label should indicate if the whisky is a ‘single malt’ (made entirely in one distillery from malted barley), a ‘single grain’ (made entirely in one distillery with corn, wheat, or rye), or a ‘blend’, which is a combination of malt and grain whiskies from two or more distilleries. In the case of a blend, the age on the label will refer to its youngest component.

What is Japan's oldest whiskey brand?

The oldest whisky brand in Japan is Suntory, which was established in 1899. The Yamazaki distillery, owned by Suntory, is Japan's first and oldest malt whisky distillery. Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory, opened the Yamazaki distillery with the vision to create a whisky that appealed to the delicate Japanese palate.

Why is Yamazaki so hard to find?

Yamazaki is Japan's oldest commercial distillery, established in 1923. The scarcity of Yamazaki whisky can be attributed to the surge in demand for Japanese whiskies, both domestically and internationally. This has led to a depletion of aged stocks, making it more difficult to find on the market. Furthermore, the production process, which involves aging in rare Japanese mizunara oak, adds to the complexity and time required to produce this whisky, contributing to its scarcity.

The Yamazaki 55 Year Old: Unveiling the Liquid Legacy
Yamazaki 55: Rare, aged, and esteemed. Limited edition, exceptional craftsmanship, and prized flavor make it one of the most expensive whiskies.

Conclusion

Collecting Japanese whiskies is a rewarding endeavor that offers a unique insight into the country's culture and craftsmanship. Whether you're a seasoned collector or a novice, the world of Japanese whisky has something to offer everyone. From the historic rivalry between Suntory and Nikka to the innovative practices of smaller distilleries like Chichibu, there's a wealth of history and flavor to explore. As the value of these whiskies continues to rise, there's no better time to start your collection.

Sources:

How to collect Japanese whisky | Christie’s
In recent years Japanese whisky has become as desirable as Scotland’s ‘water of life’. Here’s how to tell your Yoichi from your Yamazaki
Collecting guide: Single malt Scotch and Japanese whiskies | Christie’s
Noah May, Head of Wine & Spirits in London, introduces the most collectable whiskies in the world. Illustrated with examples offered on 9 September

Sotheby's (2022), Wines & Spirits Market Report. https://www.sothebys.com/en/docs/pdf/wine-spirits-market-report-2022.pdf

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