Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Suntory Announces Major Price Hikes from April 2015

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Yesterday, Suntory officially confirmed rumours that had been circulating for a while, i.e. that it would raise prices for 6 of its major brands (Hibiki, Yamazaki, Hakushu, Macallan, Balvenie and Laphroaig).

The price hikes will affect 39 expressions – across the aforementioned 6 brands (constituting 8% of Suntory Liquor’s total sales). Cheap whiskies, like Torys or the iconic Kakubin, will not be affected.

The last time Suntory raised prices for its domestic whiskies was in September 2008 (a less dramatic increase than this time round). Since then, the cost of raw materials (barley and corn) has gone up with 60-70%, according to Suntory, and this has made the price increases inevitable.

The prices of Suntory’s domestic whiskies will be raised by 20-25%. The three Scotch brands in its portfolio will see a price increase between 17 and 25% - also because of increased demand for these brands in new markets worldwide.

The graph below shows the actual price difference for the major expressions (prices without tax):
Suntory also announced a new permanent addition to its Hibiki range, a NAS expression called ‘Japanese Harmony’ (bottled at 43%). This will be available in Japan from March 10, 2015 and later in the year in selected markets abroad. In Japan, it will be priced at 4,000 yen. It is unclear whether the price of this expression will also be adjusted from April 2015 onwards.
It will be interesting to see whether other major players on the Japanese whisky scene follow suit. It is clear that this move is not an impulsive one, however. Suntory has been laying the groundwork for this for a few years now, by phasing out lower age statements and replacing them with NAS expressions and/or by adding a NAS version to the bottom of a range (as with the newly announced Hibiki, for example). This way, people whose wallets are less inclined to adapt to the price hikes have a ‘substitute’. Whether the consumer will respond in the way that Suntory anticipates remains to be seen, especially if the government goes through with its plan to further increase the consumption tax (which used to be 5% until last year) from 8% to 10% - while salaries remain what they are…

Whisky Festival in Tokyo 2014: Japanese Whiskies

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A few weeks ago, we spent the better part of the day at the annual Whisky Festival in Tokyo. Organized by the Scotch Whisky Research Centre, this has quickly become one of the most anticipated whisky events of the year in Japan. With TIBS/Whisky Live leaving the real whisky aficionado somewhat wanting this year, we heard many people comment that the Whisky Festival in Tokyo was what they had been waiting for all year long.
The festival bottlings: Caperdonich 1994 (l) and Blair Athol 1991 (r).
© Howard Weitzman
Rather than do a comprehensive review of this year’s edition (which would make for a long post, indeed), we’ll limit ourselves to the Japanese whisky presence at the festival and spotlight some recent and forthcoming bottlings.

The festival provided further evidence – if any was needed – that the big boys (Suntory and Nikka) have abandoned the hard-core whisky fan base that saw them through the hard times before the current (post-2009) highball boom. Volume is the order of the day, now – and small-batch limited editions or single cask releases are just a drop in the bucket and too much hassle to deal with from their point of view… hence nothing special was to be found at their respective booths. (One wonders whether the PR departments at either company have any idea of the specific demographics of the various whisky festivals in Japan – as the Whisky Festival in Tokyo is clearly aimed at the whisky connoisseur rather than the casual drinker.)
Kirin had brought an interesting new release to the festival – a pair, actually: Fuji Gotemba Blender’s Choice Single Malt & Single Grain (bottled at 46%abv, 500ml, limited to 500 bottles each). Expertly crafted by chief blender Jota Tanaka, it is clear Kirin is exploring ways of recapturing the attention of whisky fans. The quality of this pair and the reasonable pricing augurs well for the future.
© Howard Weitzman
As always, there was no lack of interest at the Chichibu booth. There was no new festival-only release as such (it is difficult for smaller distilleries to have a new product ready for every single whisky festival especially when there are so many in just a few months’ time, as was the case here in Japan after the summer), but there was a lot of excitement about a prototype bottling: a bit of a mystery, a peated malt from Chichibu but a ‘blended malt’… People felt this was one of the highlights of the festival, so if Akuto-san proceeds to bottle this, it will be a sure hit!
Our friends from Mars (the distillery, not the planet, obviously) had brought their recently released ‘Komagatake Sherry & American White Oak 2011’ (3yo, 57%abv, 5,200btls.), a promising dram. We spoke at length with the good folk from Mars and found out they had replaced the old stills with two brand-new (made in Japan!) stills – exactly the same size and shape (since the old blueprints were used). The old stills have been turned into a little monument in front of the distillery. Since the 2014-15 distilling season started just after the new stills had been put in place (at the beginning of December), it will be interesting to see what the new spirit is like in comparison with the old one.
© Hombo Shuzou
The people at Mars also told us that they are planning to release the first single cask from the new regime (i.e. post-2011) in the summer of next year. Their old stock is dwindling very fast – apparently no more than 40 casks are left in the warehouse. We were a little sad to hear that – because of re-racking – the two mizunara casks that we reported on a couple of years ago (check here) are no more… so that means we will have to wait another couple of decades for the possibility of a Mars mizunara release, if it ever happens. It does indicate, however, that quality is the prime concern there at Mars Shinshu – not hype / sexy words on the label.
Eigashima never participates in whisky festivals but they did have a new single cask bottling at the festival, courtesy of the people at Gaia Flow. This one is called ‘Kiri’ (#61191) and it’s a double-matured single cask (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), as so often with Eigashima. It was distilled in the summer of 2009 and filled into a European oak hogshead. After three years, it was re-racked into a white wine cask (from their Yamanashi winery) and left to further mature for two years. It’s bottled at 58% (as are most single casks at Eigashima) and available now. It’s one of the better single cask Eigashimas, so it’s definitely worth seeking out.
Our friends at Shinanoya had brought some stunning new store-exclusives (a Glenfarclas Family Cask 1979 bottled in conjunction with The Bow Bar in Sapporo; a fantastic Cadenhead’s Graigellachie 1994 and a 1997 Michel Huard Calvados), but there was a lot of buzz surrounding a forthcoming bottling that was announced at the festival: “Wa-Kyo” (lit. “Japanese harmony/resonance”), a blended malt created by Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo centred on Yamazaki 1984 Mizunara malt and with a label featuring calligraphy by Sho-shu (who created the calligraphy for an NHK period drama currently running). No word on when exactly it will be out, what the outturn will be and what it will be priced at, but we’ll keep you posted.
There was lots more to be excited about at the festival, but we’ll leave it at this. The next festival on the Scotch Whisky Research Centre’s calendar is the inaugural Whisky Festival in Kyoto on February 22, 2015. If it’s as good at this year’s Tokyo edition – and why wouldn’t it be? – it is worth the trip alone!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nikka Whisky Reference Guide Update

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
A few weeks ago, we ran into Hajime Asano, who loyal readers (check here) and/or Nikka-fans will remember as the unofficial archivist of all things Nikka. He self-published the first version of his comprehensive list of all Nikka whisky releases at the end of 2012, and has just published an updated version, including not only new releases since then (some of them gracing the cover) but also containing many additions and clarifications. The list of single cask releases is particularly useful, and there’s even a section on canned highballs released by Nikka so far.
Asano-san is also working on a detailed history of the company (he showed us the first draft, which is close to 500 pages!). Nikka really should be paying him for all the work he is doing… and why is nobody doing anything similar for Suntory? Given the fact that both companies are making record profits and celebrating all kinds of anniversaries, isn’t it about time they set aside a minuscule part of their budget and assigned someone to go through their archives to write a detailed (bi-lingual!) company history? One can dream…

Friday, November 28, 2014

New Japanese SMWS Codes & Bottlings

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in the UK and Australia have just released some brand new Japanese bottlings. Not only that, three new distillery codes have been added to their list: G11 and G12 (Nikka Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt resp.) and G13 (Chita, i.e. Suntory’s grain distillery in Aichi prefecture).

The line-up consists of the following bottlings:

  • Yoichi: 116.20 "Fascinating complexity and finesse" (26yo, virgin oak puncheon)
  • Yamazaki: 119.13 "Fathoms deep" (11yo refill bourbon barrel)
  • Yamazaki: 119.14 "Raspberry imperial stout" (11yo, sherry butt)
  • Hakushu: 120.7 "Sweet, fragrant and satisfying"  (14yo, first-fill bota corta)
  • Hakushu: 120.8 "A surge of sweet peat" (13yo, 2nd fill bourbon hogshead, peated)
  • Miyagikyo: 124.4 "Full of secret pleasures" (17yo, 1st fill sherry butt)
  • Miyagikyo: 124.5 "Juicy fruits and spicy oak" (23yo, 1st fill sherry hogshead)
  • Nikka Coffey Grain: G11.1 "Tongue tingling intensity!" (14yo, re-charred hogshead)
  • Nikka Coffey Malt: G12.1 "Oh so sweet" (11yo, re-charred hogshead)
  • Chita: G13.1 "A complete revelation" (4yo, virgin oak puncheon)

The Japanese chapter of the SMWS plans to launch these bottlings in style some time during the next year. Lucky SMWS members abroad may already be able to get their hands on some of these before Christmas.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Breaking News: New Malt Whisky Distillery to be opened in 2016 in Japan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Photo: Hokkaido by Chi King (CC BY 2.0)
News has just come out that Japan will get its 9th malt whisky distillery next year. It is a project of Tokyo-based export/import company Kenten Jitsugyou (who import raw food materials into Japan and export liquor), but the actual distillery will be in Hokkaido.

It will be the second distillery in Hokkaido (after Yoichi) but the first one in the Doutou area (i.e. the east of Hokkaido). Kenten Jitsugyou submitted its construction request to the town office of Akkeshi, a town known for its oysters, yesterday (25 November). The plan is to acquire the distilling license by September 2016 and to start production soon after.

The 2,960m² site will have a still house (with 5 washbacks and 2 pot stills) and an administration building. Projected output is 30,000 litres, and it will offer employment to two or three people initially. There’s no word on how much the company is investing in this distillery project but it’s likely to be several hundred million yen. The company is planning on launching its first whisky in 2019.

This is further proof – if any were needed – of an unparalleled Japanese whisky boom. There are rumours of at least one other distillery project in the early stages of planning – no surprise really with Japanese whiskies (new and old) fetching unreal prices in retail and at auctions at the moment, in some cases just by merit of being… Japanese whisky.

We’ll keep you informed of further details when they become available.