Monday, January 9, 2017

The year that was…

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Best wishes for the new year, folks. It’s an understatement to say that last year has been a quiet year here on Nonjatta, but that doesn’t mean we were sleeping on the job. Far from it.

The main reason for the lack of activity was the fact I was working on my book. Research, traveling and writing literally took up any free time I had for the first half of the year, and then the second half was taken up by the production side of things. That’s behind me now and what a relief it is! The book will be out in March. It’s called “Whisky Rising” and is available for pre-order from the usual suspects (apologies for the shameless plug). In truth, I could have posted some things in the margin of my work on the book, but then I happen to know a few people are working on a book on Japanese whisky so I had to keep some of my powder dry.
The other half of the story – the reason for the lack of posts last year – is that I’ve been doing much more writing for various whisky publications around the world since the beginning of 2016 (mostly for Whisky Magazine in the UK – that’s in English – and for Whisky Magazine Japan – in Japanese). This is payed writing so, obviously, that takes priority. As most of the long-time Nonjatta fans will have noticed by now, Japanese whisky is becoming increasingly hard-to-find and/or expensive. That means writing about it is much more costly, in terms of expenses incurred along the way. Gone are the days when you could pick up rare and interesting bottles any day of the week at ‘normal’ prices. Gone are the days when you could visit a bar and have half a dozen interesting Japanese whiskies for the price of an average dinner. Prices in retail are up. The competition is lethal – every man and his dog now wants a Chichibu single cask when one is released (which is not all that often). Prices on the secondary market are batshit mental. So it’s only natural that prices at bars are higher than what they used to be, too. Collecting Rolex watches is nothing compared with the credit card stress the Japanese whisky hobbyist has to endure, if he wants to stay “in the game”. From a writer’s point of view things aren’t any easier. Japanese whisky producers don’t send samples – they didn’t when there wasn’t much interest in the category of Japanese whisky, at home and abroad, and they don’t need to now that there is more demand than they can satisfy – so pro bono writing (which is what Nonjatta has always been!) is harder on the wallet of the person doing the writing. That’s just the way things are nowadays.

Nonjatta has always been about spreading enthusiasm for Japanese whisky, informing people and helping them find their way to (and into) the liquid. Now that everyone is crazy about Japanese whisky – not only about the liquid, sadly, but also as an “alternative investment”, as it’s usually phrased – it is harder to pursue those lofty ideals. Reviewing whisky with the idea of helping the reader make up their mind whether it is likely to appeal to them so that they can then go out and buy a bottle for their private enjoyment or track one down at a bar is… well, let’s face it, not going to happen anymore. When a single cask bottling or a limited release comes out, it is a mad scramble for crumbs and with a few hundred bottles available it is gone faster than you can say “oh, look there it is at auction for 5 times the retail price”. The result is that, even when you DO manage to get hold of a bottle, this situation leads people to fetishize their bottle. Even those who genuinely buy to drink can’t shake off the feeling that the bottle they were lucky to score is now worth the equivalent of a week’s holiday in Hawaii.
In any case, none of this is news… so we won’t linger on it too much. Asked to single out some highlights of the past year, here are our picks of “best” – whatever that means, we won’t get into that! – Japanese whiskies of 2016:

Best Blended Whisky: Kirin Fuji-sanroku 50° Non-Chillfiltered
Best Single Malt Whisky: Mars “Komagatake” Tsunuki Aging
Best Single Grain Whisky: Fuji Gotemba Small Batch 25yo Single Grain
Best Single Cask Whisky: Chichibu Malt Dream Cask for Bar Kitchen

With the exception of the grain whisky – which is an anomaly, really – these are all young whiskies. The reality is that, for a very long time, we will be drinking very young whisky coming out of Japan. Six new distilleries started producing last year. It will obviously take a while before anything ‘mature’ will come out of the warehouses of those distilleries. Other smaller distilleries – Chichibu, Mars Shinshu and Eigashima – have relatively young stock and can’t splash their older stock about the place too much. They need it for the future and they know that the future lasts a long time. The only ones able to offer a bit more variety in terms of aged stock are the big boys but whether they will remains to be seen. There has been very little coming out of Suntory and Nikka in terms of new, special or limited releases recently. They’ve been replenishing their warehouses for almost a decade now – producing around the clock. It may be that we will reap the fruits of that labour in the years to come. Then again, it may just be that all the stock that has been laid down since the highball boom is needed to satisfy mass demand for their entry-level products – i.e. that there is no space, real or mental, to release small-batch / single cask / limited edition products aimed at whisky enthusiasts.

This is turning into a long post, so we’ll let you get back to whatever it was you were doing, dear reader. We’ll just leave you with a promise to try and return to the level of activity pre-2016 on Nonjatta. The angles may be somewhat different, and posts may be a bit more brief, but we’ll do our best! Here’s to a year filled with better whiskies at better prices! Kanpai!

5 comments:

Guillaume Barth said...

Happy new year Stefan ! All the best for 2017 !
Really happy to hear that the book is finished.

Stefan Van Eycken said...

Many thanks, Guillaume. Best wishes for the new year for you, too.
Hopefully, we'll get to share some drams - either where you are, or where I am - in 2017!

Niels Viveen said...

Happy new year Stefan, I did find it strange though, that the last two times I visited Yoichi in 2016, on both times, the stills were not running (May and August).
And now a days, the distillery looks more like a tourist attraction for the many Chinese and slightly less ample Japanese tourists (Mixed with the odd non-Asian) then it looks like it's a functioning distillery.

However, with all the new or re-opened distilleries, I am hoping on some exciting times ahead. Looking forward to more posts on Nonjatta, should you have the time for it and looking forward to reading your book too.

All the best to you and your family.

TOMMY said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TOMMY said...

Hi Stefan, happy New year and glad to see your post again. Is your new book available for sale online?

Btw, how do you find the Tsunuki? I was lucky enough to get a bottle but since it's a commemorative bottle, still holding back the drinking. Would be glad if you can share the tasting note. Thanks and all the best for 2017. Cheers😊