Japanese whisky producer to stop selling premium aged brands as supply runs dry

It takes pride of place in high-end bars around the world, has been crowned with a string of glittering awards and even starred in the hit film Lost in Translation.

But Japanese whisky, which has recently followed in the footsteps of sushi and ramen with a meteoric rise in overseas popularity, appears to have become a victim of its own success.

The leading Japanese whisky maker Suntory Spirits has announced that it will shortly stop selling two premium brands due to shortages fuelled by a global thirst for its award-winning drinks.

The company – Japan’s first whisky maker – plans to suspend sales of Hakushu 12, a single malt whisky, from June, while the popular blended Hibiki 17 will stop from September.

The decision to halt sales was taken because Suntory was reportedly unable to keep up with surging demand, according to Kyodo news agency.

The popularity of Japanese whisky abroad has hit new heights in recent years, due to a string of international awards and a growing market for fashionable Japanese restaurants and bars overseas.

But the demise of the two premium Suntory brands was an inevitable consequence of its popularity due to finite supplies, according to Jim Murray, the British global whisky expert.

“I was not at all surprised to hear Suntory’s news,” Mr Murray, author of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, told the Telegraph. “There is not enough Japanese whisky to sustain demand.

“Its popularity really took off when I gave Yamazaki 17 a World Whisky of the Year award in 2014. Since then, everyone has tried to get hold of Japanese whisky and both sales and prices have gone through the roof – and Japanese companies are struggling to keep up with demand.”

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Whisky within Japan is also increasingly in demand, due to a generation of young Japanese opting to drink fashionable “highballs” – a mix of whisky and soda.

As a result, domestic shipments of whisky reportedly soared from 60,900 kilolitres in 2007 to 137,000 kilolitres last year, according to Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association.

Pinpointing the widespread appeal of Japanese whiskies, Mr Murray added: “For years, they have very strictly followed Scotch traditions, more so than in Scotland. There is the most enormous attention to detail and the end result are very good whiskies.”

Hibiki 17, a blended whisky aged in rare Japanese oak and sold in iconic glass bottles with 24 facets, has long been a popular choice among connoisseurs (among them, the character played by Bill Murray in the film Lost in Translation).

The drink, described as having notes of oak, cocoa and sherried peels, has won a string of accolades, including the Gold Award at the 2016 International Spirits Awards.

The single malt Hakushu 12 is another long-standing favourite among whisky lovers, with its palate of smoky, grassy and honey flavours ensuring its status as a longstanding best-seller.

News of the halting of sales may have already triggered a rush to buy remaining supplies, with Hibiki 17, which sells for hundreds of pounds, out of stock on some online outlets in the UK on Wednesday. Hakushu 12, which sells from about £99, was still available. 

Fortunately for Japanese whisky fans, Suntory is taking steps to bridge the gap between soaring demand and shrinking supplies, with the company reportedly investing heavily in expanding its ageing production facilities in Japan.

“The problem is that you cannot just knock out a 17-year-old whisky, it can take a good 20 years to produce,” says Mr Murray. “But the good news is that Japanese companies are now investing very heavily in equipment to increase production, even if it does take a long time to produce a good whisky.”

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