I n March 2020, a bottle of whisky auctioned by Sotheby’s in London sold for more than £363,000. A rare bottling of Macallan, perhaps? No, it was a Karuizawa 52-year-old whisky... from Japan. Released later in the same year, bottles of Yamazaki 55-year-old whisky started to command nearly twice that price.
While Japanese whisky has only recently set auction rooms alight, its history stretches back over a century. According to Jonny Fowle, Sotheby’s head of whisky, its success is largely the legacy of two men: Shinjiro Torii, a wine merchant from Osaka who marketed his “Tory’s [now Suntory] Whisky” in 1919, and Masataka Taketsuru, who studied whisky distilling in Longmorn, Scotland.
On his return to Japan, armed with copious notes and accompanied by his Scottish wife Rita, Taketsuru teamed up with Torii. Between them, in 1923, they opened a distillery in the village of Yamazaki. “The aim was to create an exact facsimile of Scotch whisky,” says Fowle, “and that’s what Japanese whisky distillers have been doing ever since.”
Nearly 100 years later, demand for aged Japanese whisky is massively outstripping supply – like Scotch whisky, notes Fowle, “the market goes in peaks and troughs, and there is a tendency to sell off older whiskies when business is slow. Now it’s booming again, old whiskies are scarce.”
Though Taketsuru died in 1979, his legacy lives on – not just in the knowhow that he brought back from Scotland but, vicariously, in the stratospheric success of the industry he did so much to establish. The story of Taketsuru and his wife was portrayed in Massan, a hugely popular Japanese TV drama. “Along with the film Lost In Translation [starring Bill Murray as a fading movie star recruited to advertise Suntory whisky], it gave Japanese whisky a huge boost,” says Fowle. Until 20 years ago, Japanese whisky had barely left the country; now, it is second only to Scotland as the biggest whisky market in the world.
Japanese Whisky Available for Immediate Purchase
Banner: The Yamazaki Distillery in Mishima, Osaka, Japan. Courtesy of Suntory