At Nicks Wine Merchants, one of Australia's premium online liquor stores, manager Alex Chlebnikowski has a dilemma: his customers want high-end Japanese whisky and he's finding it nigh impossible to lay his hands on fresh bottles.
"I've noticed the supply is simply drying up, especially when it comes to anything with an age-statement," Chlebnikowski says. "The supply is very inconsistent, and the prices seem to be creeping up as well."
Over the past year, demand for Japan's silky world-beating whisky has completely exploded among Western drinkers. In particular, interest picked up after lauded critic Jim Murray proclaimed a single malt from the Yamazaki distillery "the best in the world," in November 2014. Of course, that bottling immediately flew off the shelves, and prices spiked.
Supply and demand
"The worldwide increase in demand means it's impossible for Japanese distilleries to keep up the supply," says Chlebnikowski. "We're talking about a product that takes a minimum of three years to make and may be aged for 20 years or more. You can't just turn on a tap overnight, like you can with vodka."
Chlebnikowski says there are plenty of occasions when customers call up wanting a particular Japanese whisky and he has to tell them it is not available.
The Japanese will never compromise on the quality of their products. That's the bottom line.Larry Aronson
"We take down their name and email and let them know when – or if – the whisky is available again," he says. "It's a first in first served basis."
It's the same story over at The World of Whisky in Sydney's Double Bay. Director Larry Aronson says while in the past he's had great access to a range of Japanese whiskies, many of these are now dwindling, leaving him with an empty shelf.
"The rarest of all are the whiskies from the Karauizawa distillery," he says. "It closed down 2001 and subsequently has become the most sought after Japanese Single Malts amongst collectors and investors."
"But even whiskies from existing big name distilleries; drops like the 15-year-old Nikka Yoichi and their 12-year-old Miyagikyo are just impossible to get your hands on," he says. "Nikka has said they will not be releasing any whiskies right now because they are keeping them for blending purposes which is where their bulk sales are nowadays."
To get around the shortfall, Japanese producers are starting to pull back some, or all, of their popular age-statement whiskies and replacing them with non-age statement products, which can be rolled out faster to thirsty buyers.
End of the age
In June, Suntory unveiled Hibiki Japanese Harmony ($99) a blend of malt and grain whiskies that tastes strikingly similar to the Hibiki 12-year-old bottling, with a delicate mix of honey and stone fruit, but the Harmony carries no age statement.
Although the popular Hibiki 12 hasn't been officially retired, don't hold your breath trying to find it. "Hibiki Japanese Harmony will now be our central focus," a representative from Beam Suntory confirms.
Similarly, Suntory's Yamazaki and Hakashu have released their Distiller's Reserve, also without an age statement.
Aronson says whisky lovers can still buy with confidence. "At the end of the day, while these non-aged whiskies don't have the sheer complexity and full-flavour of some of the older Japanese products, the quality is still there…the Japanese will never compromise on the quality of their products. That's the bottom line."
And he says while the stocks of well-known Japanese whiskies may be drying up, it is still possible to snare a lesser known label. For example the Akashi distillery's White Oak ($120) is readily available. As is the Chichibu with their Mizunara Wood ($280). "The quantities they produce might be small compared to the larger distilleries, but on the other hand fewer people will have heard of them, so the demand will be less."
"These smaller guys tend to be purists in some respects," says Aronson. "A lot of their whiskies boast slightly higher alcohol percentages and they don't use any colourants in their products."