Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | October 2019 | 23 minutes (5,939 words)
Bic Camera looked like many of the other loud, brightly colored electronics stores I’d seen in Japan, just bigger. Mostly, it was a respite from the cold. The appliances and electronics that jammed its interior gave no indication of its dizzyingly good liquor selection, nor did the many inexpensive aged Japanese whiskies hint that affordable bottles were about to become a thing of the past, or that I’d nurture a profound remorse once they did. When I found Bic Camera’s wholly unexpected liquor department, I lifted two bottles of high-end Japanese whisky from the shelf, wandered the aisles studying the labels, had a baffling interaction with a clerk, and put the bottles back on the shelf. All I had to do was pay for them. I didn’t.
Commercial Japanese whisky has been around since at least 1929, so during my first trip to Japan (and at home in the U.S.), there was no reason to think that all the aged Japanese whiskies that were readily available in the early 2000s would soon achieve holy grail status. In 2007, there were $100 bottles of Yamazaki 18-year sitting forlornly on a shelf at my local BevMo. One bottle now sells for more than $400 at online auctions; some online stores sell them for $700.
Yoichi 10, Yoichi 12, Hibiki 17 and 21, Taketsuru 12 and 17 — in 2014, rare and discontinued bottles lined store shelves, reasonably priced compared to their current $300 to $600 price tags. Those were great years. I call them BTB — before the boom. Before the boom, a bottle of Yamazaki 12 cost $60. After the boom, a Seattle liquor store priced their last bottle of Yamazaki 12 at $225. Before the boom, Taketsuru 12 cost $20 in Japan and $70 in the States. After the boom, online auctions sell bottles for more than $220.
Before the boom, Karuizawa casks sat, dusty and abandoned, in shuttered distilleries. After the boom, a bottle of Karuizawa 1964 sold for $118,420, the most expensive Japanese whisky ever sold at auction, until a Yamazaki 50 sold for $129,186 the following year, then another went for $343,000 15 months later.
Before the boom, whisky tasted of rich red fruits and cereal grains. After the boom, it tasted of regret.
I’ve spent the past five years wishing I could do things over. I remember my trips to Japan fondly — the new friends, the food and record stores, the Kyoto temples and solitary hikes — except for the whisky, whose absence coats my mouth with the proverbial bitter taste. I replay the time I walked into a grocery store in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro neighborhood and found a shelf lined with Taketsuru 12, four bottles wide and four deep, at $20 apiece; it starts at $170 now. I look at the photos I took of Hibiki 12 for $34, Yoichi 12 for $69, Taketsuru 21 for $89. I tell friends how I’d visited the Isetan Department Store’s liquor department in Shinjuku, where they had a 12-year-old sherried Karuizawa bottled exclusively for Isetan for barely more than $100, alongside a blend of Hanyu and Kawaski grain whisky that famed distiller Ichiro Akuto did exclusively for the store. Staff wouldn’t let me photograph or touch anything, but I could have afforded both bottles. They now sell for $1,140 and $1,290, respectively. I torture myself by revisiting my unfortunate logic, how I squandered my limited funds: buying inexpensive bottles to drink during the trip, instead of a few big-ticket purchases to take home.
Aaron, I’ve thought more times that I could count, you are such a fucking idiot.
To time travel, I look at photos of old Japanese whisky bottles in Facebook groups, like they are some sort of beverage porn, and wonder: Who am I? What have I become? There’s enough incredible scotch available here at home. Why do I — and the others whose interest spiked prices and made the bottles we loved inaccessible — care so much about Japanese whisky?
* * *
After the notorious Commodore Perry landed on Japanese shores in 1853 to open the closed country to trade, he gifted the emperor a barrel and 70 gallons of American whiskey, a spirit not well-known in Japan. As whiskey tends to do, it softened the nations’ encounter; one tipsy samurai felt so good he even hugged Perry. At the time, domestic spirit production was limited to shōchū and an Okinawan drink called awamori, made from sweet potatoes and rice respectively. Japanese companies tried to recreate the brown spirits that American and European companies had started importing, but without a recipe, the imitations were rough. The earliest Japanese attempts were either cheaply made locally or imported from Europe and labeled Japanese. When two boatloads of American soldiers stopped in the port of Hakodate in 1918, en route to fight Bolsheviks in Siberia, they found bars filled with knock-off scotch, including one called Queen George. As Major Samuel L. Johnson wrote in a letter, “If you come across any, don’t touch it. … It must be 86 percent corrosive sublimate proof, because 3,500 enlisted men were stinko fifteen minutes after they got ashore.”
It was in this miasma of bad imitations that Suntory’s founder Shinjiro Torii recognized an opportunity. Winemaker Torii had been importing whiskies and bottling them as early as 1911. He called his brand Torys. As whisky found a toehold in Japan, he realized that slinging rotgut like the other frontier opportunists wasn’t the way to create a market; he needed to learn to distill an authentic, higher-quality whisky. The way Suntory’s marketing materials later presented it, Torii wanted to create a refined whisky that also reflected Japanese natural resources and Japanese tastes, which he perceived as more attuned to delicacy and nuance than the Scottish palate and that paired with Japanese cuisine rather than overpowering it — anything that tasted of corrosive sublimate would overwhelm your food. In 1923, he used his wine profits to build a distillery near Kyoto.
Elsewhere, in Osaka, Masataka Taketsuru, the son of a sake-maker, had been working for shōchū-maker Settsu Shuzo. The company, like Torii, wanted to make whisky, so in 1918 its president sent Taketsuru to study whisky-making in Scotland. Taketsuru was a 24-year-old chemist and took detailed notes when the Scottish distillers finally showed him their facilities and techniques. After two years learning the art of cask maturation, pot stills, and peat-smoking, Taketsuru returned to Japan to find that his employer’s enthusiasm for making real whisky had waned. So Taketsuru took his Scottish knowledge and enthusiasm to Torii, and the two men pooled their skills to build what became the Yamazaki Distillery, the country’s first commercial whisky producer. Sticking with Scottish tradition, they spelled it without the ‘e.’
It must be 86 percent corrosive sublimate proof, because 3,500 enlisted men were stinko fifteen minutes after they got ashore.
Suntory gets all the credit for distilling Japan’s first Scottish-style whisky, but Eigashima Shuzō, the company that now runs the White Oak Distillery, actually got the first license to produce whisky in Japan in 1919, five years before Yamazaki. Founder Kiichiro Iwai, who later founded the Mars Shinshu distillery and designed its equipment, had been Taketsuru’s mentor at Shuzo and is often called “the silent pioneer of Japanese whisky.” But Yamazaki started producing whisky sooner, so the rest, as they say, is history.
Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery launched Japan’s first true commercial whisky in 1929. Ninety years later, around a dozen companies distill whisky in Japan, depending on how you count them: Suntory and Nikka. Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. White Oak in coastal Akashi. Kirin at the base of Mt. Fuji. Mars Shinshū in the village of Miyada in the Japanese Alps. Upstarts like Akkeshi in Hokkaido and the Shizuoka Distillery near Shizuoka. All produce stellar whisky.
Whisky experienced a huge boom in postwar Japan, coming to represent success, the West, masculinity, worldliness, and Japan’s increasing importance on the world stage. “If you were to choose a drink to symbolize the rapid economic growth in the four decades after the war,” Chris Bunting writes in Drinking Japan, “it would have to be whisky.” In journalist Lawrence Osborne’s words, whisky was “the salaryman’s drink, a symbol of Westernized manliness and sophistication.” Initially, distillers flooded the domestic marketplace with mediocre blended drams and single malts that appealed to hard-working businessmen. Then Suntory relaunched Torys to reach the working-class masses; the stuff was cheap and tasted it, with a cartoon businessman mascot that the target demographic could identify with. Nikka also began producing different lines to offer Japanese drinkers an affordable Western luxury product. During the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, there was Hi Nikka, Nikka Gold & Gold, Suntory Old Whisky, and Suntory Royal. Many of these these brands used the same affectations as Scottish and English products: crests, gold fonts, aged labels, faceted glass decanters with boldly shaped stoppers, the British spelling of flavour. The approach worked. Whisky went from a drink of the well-to-do businessman to a drink of the average citizen, and it became common for working-class Japanese men to keep bottles at home. Production boomed.
In the mid-1980s, consumer drinking habits shifted toward shōchū, whisky lost its allure, and some distillers from the postwar boom years closed. But Keizo Saji, the second son of Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii, saw an opportunity: premium whisky. In 1984, the year domestic whisky consumption dropped 15.6 percent, Saji launched Yamazaki 12, Japan’s first high-end mass-market single malt, transforming a downturn into a chance for the company to outdo itself with top-notch quaffs that would raise whisky’s domestic reputation and compete with scotches in the global marketplace. Nikka followed suit with their own single malt. Historians usually date the true start of Japanese whisky’s global ascendency to 2001, when 62 industry professionals did a blind taste test for British Whisky Magazine and named Nikka’s Yoichi 10 Single Cask the year’s best. “The whiskeys of Japan proved to be a real eye-opener for the majority of tasters,” the magazine wrote. As the Japan Times reported the following year, “Sales of Nikka’s award-winning 10-year-old single-cask whiskey, which has only been sold online at Nikka’s Web site, surged from about 20 bottles a month in 2000 to 1,200 in November after several Japanese newspapers carried an article about the taste-test events.”
For a long time, the majority of Japanese whisky was made following Scottish distilling methods: Japanese single malts were made from 100 percent malted barley (mostly imported from the U.K.) with local mountain and spring water, distilled in pot stills, and matured at least three years in oak. Japanese single malts moved to casks made from American or European oaks and that once held bourbon to age further and take on color and flavor, usually for 10 to 18 years. Like scotch, these single malts were rich, wooded, and highly aromatic. But Japanese innovation also created an astonishing diversity of flavors that tradition would never have allowed. Distillers age their whisky age in casks that once held sherry, bourbon, brandy, ume, and port, and, on a more limited basis, expensive casks made from Japan’s native mizunara oak. Every culture has masters and apprentices, but the Japanese have a particular respect for craftsmanship, and many people, from coffee roasters to cedarwood lunch box makers, dedicate their lives to a single specialty. Whisky writer Brian Ashcraft told Nippon that there’s a word for this: “In the Meiji period [1868–1912] there was a slogan, wakon-yōsai, or Japanese spirit and Western knowhow. So even if a product made in Japan is superficially the same as one made overseas, it’s going to be something Japanese because of differences in culture, language, food, climate. … This applies to anything from blue jeans to cameras, cars and trains. There are elements of the culture manifesting in the finished product.” Sakuma Tadashi, Nikka’s chief blender, told Ashcraft that by liberating themselves from tradition and embracing innovation and experimentation, the company can continue to improve its whisky. “At Nikka,” Tadashi said, “it’s ingrained into everyone that we need to make whisky that is better than scotch. That’s why if we change things, then we can make even more delicious whisky.”
* * *
Like whisky aging in barrels, Japanese whisky producers’ international reputation took years to develop, but gradually medals started weighing down their lapels. In 2001, the International Wine and Spirits Competition awarded Karuizawa Pure Malt 12 a gold medal. In 2003, the International Spirits Challenge gave Yamazaki 12 a gold award. Hibiki 30 won the International Spirits Challenge’s top prize in 2004, Yamazaki 18 won San Francisco World Spirits Competition’s Double Gold Medal in 2005, and Nikka’s Yoichi 20 was named World’s Best Single Malt Whisky in 2008. The World Whiskies Awards named Yamazaki 25 “World’s Best Single Malt” in 2012. Hibiki 21 was named the world’s best blended whisky in 2013. And on and on.
I’ve harbored an interest in Japanese culture and history since fifth grade. When I discovered the anime Robotech — one of the first Japanese animated shows adapted for mainstream American television — I sat for hours in my room, copying images of robots, missiles, and sparkly-eyed warrior women into my sketchbooks. As I moved away from anime and manga, I read more broadly about Japan and fell in love with Japanese literature, food, smart technology, and the Toyotas that never died, like the truck that took me from Arizona to British Columbia and back two times. Naturally, Bill Murray’s now-famous line in Lost in Translation “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time” made me want to taste what he was talking about. So I ordered a glass of 12-year Yamazaki at a bar.
Lively and bright with a medium body, the Yamazaki had layers of orange peel, honey, cinnamon, and brown sugar, along with a surprisingly earthy incense aroma, almost like cedar, which I later learned came from casks made from Japan’s mizunara oak — Mizunara imparts what distillers call “temple flavor.” I kept my nose in the glass, sniffing and smiling and sniffing, no matter what the other patrons thought of me. When Bill Murray raised his glass of Hibiki 17, Suntory’s Hibiki and Yamazaki lines were not widely distributed in the U.S. or Europe, and Western drinkers who knew them often considered them a novelty, or worse, a careful impersonation of the “real” Scottish malts. What I tasted could not be dismissed as a novelty. I knew that the people at Suntory who made this whisky had treated it as a work of art.
I loved it so much that I wondered what else was out there. There was little information in English: a single English-language book, Ulf Buxrud’s hard-to-find Japanese Whisky: Facts, Figures and Taste, which cost too much to order. Instead, I found a community of blogging gaijin who took Japanese spirits as seriously as the distillers did, sharing information, reviews, and whatever information they could find. Some of them lived in Japan. Others visited frequently and had Japanese connections who could translate details and source bottles. Clint A. of Whiskies R Us, Chris Bunting and Stefan Van Eycken at Nonjatta, Michio Hayashi at Japan Whisky Reviews. And Brian Love, aka Dramtastic, who ran the Japanese Whisky Review. They blogged about the domestic drams that you could only buy in Japan. They blogged about obscure drams from the decommissioned Kawasaki grain distillery; about something called owners casks and other limited bottlings made for Japanese department stores; and about what remained from the mothballed Karuizawa distillery, now one of the most fetishized whiskies in the world. They were my education.
At home, I searched for whiskies online and in bars and liquor stores and soon discovered my favorites: I preferred the smoky, rich coal-fired Yoichi to the woody, spicy Yamazaki. I liked the fruity depth of Hibiki a lot, but had an irrational prejudice against blended whisky, so I didn’t buy any bottles of Hibiki when they cost a mere $70. And I preferred the crisp, herbaceous forest flavors of 12-year-old Hakushu to them all; I still do. Even after I became moderately educated and increasingly opinionated, I kept buying $30 bottles of my beloved Elijah Craig 12-year instead of Yoichi or Hibiki. That’s the thing: The bloggers couldn’t teach me that the years when I discovered Japanese whisky turned out to be their best years, and that I needed to take advantage of my timing. They didn’t know. Nobody outside the whisky companies did, and nothing about their posts suggested that this world of abundant, affordable Japanese whiskies would come to an end around 2014.
The fan groups and bloggers praised Yamazaki and Karuizawa malts, driving worldwide interest and prices. By the time the influential Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible named the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask “World Whisky of the Year” in 2015 and San Francisco World Spirits Competition named Yamazaki 18 their 2015 Best in Class under the category “Other Whiskey,” U.S. and U.K. stores couldn’t keep Japanese whisky in stock. The student had overtaken the master. The $100 bottles of Yamazaki 18 no longer appeared on suburban BevMo shelves, and Hibiki 12 no longer cost $70. Everyone was asking stores for sherry cask, sherry cask, do you have the sherry cask? No, they did not. If you wanted a taste of Miyagikyo 12 in America, it would run you $30 to $50 a glass. The year 2015 was the first time Jim Murray named a Japanese malt the world’s best and the first time in the Whisky Bible’s 12-year history that no Scottish malt made the top five. Every drinker and their grandpa knew Johnnie Walker and Cutty Sark. Now they knew Suntory, too.
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In Japan, television fanned the flames further; a 2014 TV drama called Massan, based on the life of Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru and his industrious Scottish wife Rita Cowan, helped the Japanese take renewed notice of their own products. Simultaneously, Suntory ran an aggressive ad domestic campaign to encourage younger Japanese to drink cheap highballs — whisky mixed with soda — fueling sales and depleting stock even more.
The buzz caught Suntory and Nikka off guard. After decades of patiently turning out top-notch single malts for a relatively indifferent domestic market, Nikka announced that their aged stock had run low, not just at retailers but inside their facilities. Unable to meet worldwide demand, they did what drinkers found unthinkable: They overhauled their lineup in 2015, replacing beloved aged whiskies with less expensive bottles of “no age statement” or “NAS” whiskies that blended young and old stock. Instead of Miyagikyo aged in barrels for 12 years, Nikka gave us plain Miyagikyo. Instead of Yoichi 10, 12, 15, and 20, there was straight-up Yoichi. Suntory had already added NAS versions of its age-statement Hibiki and Hakushu to conserve shrinking old stock and then went even further, banning company executives from drinking the older single malts to save product for customers. Yamazaki 12 still landed on American shelves, but in smaller quantities that sold out quickly, and Japanese buyers saw them less frequently back home.
Longtime fans greeted Suntory’s answer to the masses, called Toki, with skepticism and hostility. (In the words of one non-word-mincing Reddit poster: “Toki sucks. It’s fucking terrible.”) Time in wood gives whisky complexity. That’s how whisky works, but distillers didn’t have enough old whisky anymore, and they seemed to be rationing what remained in order to blend their core lines while they continued aging what they hoped to bottle again. They were victims of their own success, and they needed time to catch up. Nikka’s official press release put it this way: “With the current depletion, Yoichi and Miyagikyo malt whiskies, which are the base of most of our products, will be exhausted in the future and we will be unable to continue the business.”
On the open market, the news created a frenzy that fueled the resale business. Japanese citizens who previously bought few Nikka malts scavenged whatever bottles they could. Chinese investors flew to Japan to gather stock to mark up. Stores in Tokyo inflated prices to gouge tourists, selling $873 bottles of Hakushu 18 that retailed for $300 in Oregon. Secondhand liquor stores collected and resold unopened bottles, many of which came from the elderly or deceased, who had received them as omiyage gifts but didn’t drink whisky. Auction sites flourished. “We call this the ‘terminal aunt’ syndrome,” Van Eycken wrote, “you know, the aunt you never visit until she’s terminally ill.”
The boom times were over.
After the boom, foreign whisky fans took to the web to post about Japan’s shifting stock. Obsessive types like me — what the Japanese call ‘otaku — shared updates about which bottles they found where and which stores were picked clean. “The Japanese whiskys here are in short supply still, short of the cheap stuff,” said one visitor in Fukuoka. Another foreigner proclaimed “the glory days of $100 ‘zawa’s and easy to find single cask Hanyu’s are over.” Gaijin enthusiasts would search cities in their free time while in Japan on business; others drove out into inaka, the sticks, systematically searching for rare or underpriced bottles at mom-and-pop shops. “On the bright side,” the same commenter reported in 2016, “I went into the boonies and found a small liquor distributor who had 2 Yoichi 10’s and a bunch of dusties (Nikka Super 15, Suntory Royal 15, The Blend of Nikka 17 Maltbase, Once Upon a Time) all pretty cheap, between $18-$35 each. I know some of those dusties are not much more than mixer material, but it’s nice to have a piece of history.” Others found these searches pointless. “Well as a point of fact there is no point for any foreigner to come to Japan in search of Japanese whisky,” Dramtastic wrote in 2015. “You will in many countries almost certainly find a better offering at home and if not, one of the online retailers.” He titled his post “Buying Japanese Whisky In Japan — Nothing But Scorched Earth!”
It was right before the earth got scorched that I obliviously arrived in Japan.
* * *
When I finally got the money to travel overseas, there was only one real choice: Japan. For three weeks, I roamed Tokyo and Kyoto alone, where I shopped for my beloved canned sanma fish and green tea soy milk in grocery stores. I bought jazz CDs and Murakami books in Japanese I couldn’t read. I wrote about capsule hotels and old jazz bars. I photographed my ramen and eel dinners, and I photographed bottles of whisky on store shelves.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want them. I wanted them all: Yoichi 15, Hibiki 21, Miyagikyo 12. But as a traveler, practical considerations prevailed. I didn’t have much money. My luggage already held too much stuff, and anyway, the products would be there next time. I bought a few bottles of common whisky to drink during my trip and went about my business.
I unwittingly found the largest selection of Japanese whisky on my final night in Japan.
I was staying near the busy Ikebukuro train station and went out seeking curry. I wandered around in the cold, shivering and sad about leaving. As I passed ramen shops and busy izakayas, I spotted a cluttered electronics store. Music blared. The interior had a cramped, carnival atmosphere. Blinding white light spilled out the front door. Red lettering on the building’s reflective side said Bic Camera.
I didn’t know it then, but the Bic Camera chain had nearly 40 stores nationwide. The stores often stand seven or eight stories in busy areas near train stations where pedestrians abound. In 2008, the company was valued at $940 million, and its founder, Ryuji Arai, was the 31st richest person in Japan. When Arai opened his original Tokyo camera store in 1978, he sold $3.50 worth of merchandise the first day. Today, Bic Camera is an all-purpose mega-store that sells seemingly everything but cars and fresh produce.
Before the boom, Bic sold highly limited editions of whisky made exclusively for Bic, including an Ichiro 22-year and a Suntory blend. The stock is designed to compete with liquor stores that carry similar selections, though many Japanese shoppers come for the imported scotch and American bourbon. That night I couldn’t tell any of that. I couldn’t even tell if this was an upscale department store or a Japanese version of Walmart. In America, hip stories follow the “less is more” principle, with sparse displays that suggest they’re also selling negative space and apathy. Bic crammed everything in.
I rode the escalator up for no other reason than to see what was there. Cell phones, cameras, TVs — the escalator provided a nice view of each floor. When I spotted booze on 4F, I jumped off. They had an entire corner devoted to liquor and a wall displaying Japanese whisky. They had all the good ones I’d read about online but hadn’t been able to find and others I didn’t know. My luggage already contained so many CDs, clothes, and souvenirs that I’d have to mail some things home, but I grabbed two bottles anyway, I no longer remember which kind. I only remember gripping their cold glass necks like they were the last bottles on earth, desperate to bring just a bit more home, and I held them tightly as I wandered the aisles, studying the unreadable labels of aged whiskies and marveling at the business strategy of this mysterious store as I preemptively mourned my return to the States.
A clerk in a black vest approached me and said something politely that I couldn’t understand. With a smile, the man said something else and bowed, sorry, very sorry. He pointed to his watch. The store was closing, maybe it already had. He stood and stared. I looked at him and nodded. He stood nodding back. In that overwhelming corner, with indecipherable announcements blaring overhead, I considered my options and returned the bottles to the shelf, offering my apologies. Then I rode back down to the frigid street. The dark night felt darker away from Bic’s fluorescence, as did the winter air.
Like a good tourist — and like a dumbass — I photographed everything on that first trip, from tiny cars to bowls of udon to Japanese whisky displays. When I look at the photos of those rare bottles now, I see the last Tasmanian tiger slipping into the woods. The next season, it went extinct, and all I’d done was raise my camera at it. I had unwittingly visited the world’s greatest Japanese whisky city and I had nothing to show for it.
* * *
The trip ended. The regret lived on.
Partly, it was fed by money, or my lack thereof: Because I like having a few different styles of whisky at home, I wanted a range of Japanese styles, but I couldn’t afford $100 bottles of anything, which meant I’d never get to taste many of these whiskies.
Part of it was nostalgia: I wanted to keep the memory of my time in Japan alive, to prolong the trip, by keeping its bottles on display at home.
Mostly, it’s driven by something much more ethereal. When people ask why I like whisky, I tell them it’s the taste and smell. Scotch strikes a chord in me in a way that wine, bourbon, and cocktails do not. I spare them the more confusing truth, which even I struggle to articulate. Part of scotch’s appeal comes from scarcity and craftsmanship. Its spare ingredients include only barley, spring water, wood, and the chemical reactions that occur between them. And time: Aged spirits are old. For half of my 20s and all of my 30s — the time I was busting my ass after college, trying to build a career and learn to write well enough to tell a story like this — 18-year old Yamazaki whisky lay inside a barrel in a warehouse outside Osaka. That liquid and I lived our lives in parallel, steadily maturing, accruing character, until our paths finally crossed at a bar in Oregon.
That liquid and I lived our lives in parallel, steadily maturing, accruing character, until our paths finally crossed at a bar in Oregon.
But it’s more than age. Something magical happens in those barrels, where liquid interacts with wood in the dark, damp warehouses where barrels rest for decades. Aged whisky is a rare example of celebrating life moving at a slow, geological pace that is no longer the norm in our instant world. You can’t speed up this process, and that makes the liquid precious. When you’ve waited 12 years for a whisky to come out of the cask, or 20 years — through wars and presidencies, political upheavals and ecological crises — that’s longer than many people have been alive. And in a sense, the whisky itself is alive. That potent life force is preserved in that bottle. The drops are by nature limited, measured in ounces and milliliters, and that limitation puts another value on it. When the cap comes off your 750-milliliter bottle, you count: sip, sip, uh oh, 600 mils left, then 400, then a level low enough that you reserve the bottle for special occasions.
The limited availability of certain whiskies adds another layer of scarcity value; when distilleries close, their whisky becomes irreplaceable. No more of those Hanyus or Karuizawas will ever get made. No more versions of the early 1990s Hibiki, since Suntory changed the formula. For distilleries that still operate, their whisky is irreplaceable, too. The exact combination of wood, temperature, and age will never produce the same flavor twice. Even when made according to a formula, whisky is a distinct expression of time and place. The weather, the blender, the barley, the proximity to the sea, and of course, the barrels — sherry, port, or bourbon? — all impart a particular flavor along with the way blenders mix them. For Yamazaki 18, 80 percent of the liquid gets aged in sherry casks, the remaining 20 percent in American oak and mizunara. That deliberation and precision come from human expertise that takes a lifetime to acquire, and expertise, like the whisky it produces, is singular and therefore valuable.
When you sip whisky, you don’t have to think about of any of this to enjoy it. You don’t even have to name the flavors you taste. You can just silently appreciate it; it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
For me, Japanese whisky became more complicated, because I also wanted it to give me something more than it could: a connection to a trip and a time that had passed.
In Japan, everything looked a certain way. The way stores displayed bottles. The way restaurants displayed food. The way businesses signs hung outside — Matsuya, Shinanoya, CoCo Curry House — and the way all of those images and colors and geometries combined in a raucous clutter of wires and Hiragana and Katakana to create urban Japan’s distinctive look. When I returned home, I kept picturing those streets. They appeared in dreams and projected themselves on shower curtain as I washed in the morning. To stave off my hunger, I frequently ate at local Japanese restaurants, but even the most exacting decorations or grilled yakitori skewers couldn’t fully give me what I wanted. So I fantasized about creating it myself, and then I did: my best replica of an underground Tokyo bar, in the corner of my basement, the bottles lined up just so.
When my wife, Rebekah, and I took our honeymoon to Japan in 2016, I hoped to make up for past errors. Instead, I found the scorched earth. Japanese liquor stores and grocers sold few of the rare bottles they did just two years earlier. The fancy department stores had no Karuizawa or Hanyu. And the aged whiskies I did find had price tags too big to afford. I bought none of them on that trip either. For the cost of a $130 Yoichi 12, I could buy three great bottles of regular hooch at home. After we returned, I kept scheming ways to return to Japan for just a few days. Since I couldn’t, I satisfied myself with my display of empty whisky, sake, and Japanese beer bottles, and I kept scheming ways to get more domestic booze. A friend brought me a bottle of Kakubin while visiting her family in Tokyo. I asked a few friends in Japan to mail me bottles, even though regulations prohibit Japanese citizens from doing that. (They said no.)
There was only one way to get more whisky, and I couldn’t afford the ticket.
Then in January an email about a discount flight to Tokyo landed in my inbox. Flights were crazy cheap. I had to go.
When I proposed this to Rebekah, she said, “Seriously?” She lay in bed, staring at me like I’d asked if she’d hop on a plane to Amsterdam in 10 minutes without packing. “Just hear me out,” I said, and outlined my impractical business plan for recouping expenses by throwing paid, tip-only whisky parties for booze no one could find anywhere else in Portland, where we live. “Think about it as a stock mission,” I said. “I’m buying inventory.” She stared at me unblinking. It’s Japan, I said. It’s right there, next to Oregon after all that water. We were basically neighbors! The quality of the whisky I’d buy would be lower than all the now-collectible bottles I passed up on my first trip, but at least I would do it right.
It’s Japan, I said. It’s right there, next to Oregon after all that water.
I pictured myself flying to Tokyo in spring. The train from Narita Airport to Bic Camera in Kashiwa would wobble along the tracks, its brakes squeaking as it stopped at countless suburban platforms, with their walls of apartments and scent of fried panko. A 6 o’clock, the setting sun would cast the sides of buildings the color of summer peaches, and what little I could see of the sky would glow a blinding radish yellow. My knees would hurt from sitting on that plane for 11 hours, so I’d stand by the train door to stretch them the way I had during my first Tokyo trip, watching the 7-Eleven signs and giant bike racks pass, and posing triumphantly over time and my own pigheadedness. I’d buy as many bottles of domestic Japanese whisky as my one piece of rolling luggage would hold without exceeding the airline’s 50-pound limit. In a life marked by stupid things, this would be one of the stupidest. I’d feel endlessly grateful. The bottles would keep me connected me to Japan, to that trip, date-stamped by its ephemerality, just like the numbers on the bottles of aged whisky: 10, 12, 15, 20 years.
I never bought the plane ticket. There was little there to buy anyway. In 2018, Suntory announced that it would severely limit the availability of Hibiki 17 and Hakushu 12 in most markets. Soon after, Kirin announced it would discontinue its beloved, inexpensive, domestic Fuki-Gotemba 50 blend. Stock had simply run out. I’d bought a few good bottles for low prices before the boom and they stood in our basement bar, where we drank them, not hoarded them for future resale. Drinking is what whisky is for. The bottles stood as reminders that I had done a few things right. And maybe we should think less about what we missed and more about what is yet to come. In 2013 and 2014, Suntory expanded its distilling operations to increase production. It, Nikka, Kirin, and many smaller companies have laid down a lot of whisky, and when all that whisky has sufficiently aged there will be a lot of 10-to-15-year-old whiskies on the market — maybe as early as 2020 or 2021. “I always tell people not to worry about not being able to drink certain older whiskies that are no longer available,” Osaka bar owner Teruhiko Yamamoto told writer Brian Ashcraft. “Scotch whisky has a long tradition, but right now it feels like Japanese whisky is entering a brand new chapter. We’re seeing whisky history right before our eyes.”
Still, sometimes I can’t help myself. I’ll wonder if any Suntory shipments arrived at local stores here in Portland. They rarely do. Suntory doled out their remaining aged whiskies very carefully to try to satisfy their international markets. But when I checked Oregon State’s liquor search website recently, I found that a few stores had bottles of the very rare Yamazaki 18 for $300 apiece. Compared to auction sites, that was a deal. I still couldn’t afford that, but I was curious how many other interested, obsessive types were scrambling to secure bottles. When I called one store, a man answered the phone with, “Troutdale Liquor. We’re all sold out of the Yamazaka.”
“Ha,” I said. “Okay, thanks. I hope the calls end soon.”
He said, “Me too!”
I hung up the phone and got back to work.
* * *
Aaron Gilbreath has written for Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Dublin Review, and Brick. He’s the author of the books This Is: Essays on Jazz, Everything We Don’t Know: Essays, and the forthcoming The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley. He’s working on a book about Japan.