When a Japanese brand was named the world’s best whisky in 2014 – knocking Scottish distillers off the top spot for the first time – the news travelled across the globe. But to those in the know, it had been a long time coming. Japanese whiskies have been hotting up for a decade or more and are now beginning to break into the mainstream.
“Japanese whisky tends to be slightly sweeter than the Scottish equivalent,” says Ron Cregan, head of business development at creative agency Sedley Place and a judge at the World Whisky Awards. “It’s often less complex – not necessarily a bad thing – and more accessible. Over the last five to 10 years we’ve seen a big trend for food from the Pacific Rim area – I think whisky is just catching up.”
The surge in popularity is also partly down to changing demographics. “Whisky is moving from a traditional, heritage product to something more casual,” says Cregan. The average age of drinkers is decreasing and the number of female drinkers is rising fast. “This new generation has grown up with premium vodka, moved on to craft gins – brands like Hendrick’s – and now they want to explore dark spirits. It also helps that Japanese whisky bottles and labels have such stunning aesthetics.”
Buying, however, can be fraught for the inexperienced. Due to differences in the way the Japanese whisky market is structured, many varieties have relatively limited runs, especially for the export market. If you miss out on one the first time, prices tend to rise exponentially on the resale market, as some of the prices opposite attest. Your best bet is to get in early; supermarkets including Waitrose now stock a selection and specialist retailers such as The Whisky Exchange have dozens to suit every taste and budget. Kanpai!