Kanpai!

Japanese Whisky Is Overpriced, Over-Hyped and More Exciting Than Ever


April 11, 2019 Drinks By Photo by Chandler Bondurant

The Task Rabbit was balking, but I had to save the deal no matter what. “Go quickly,” I pleaded. “I’ll tip you heavy.”

“You want me to hit a liquor store?” he asked. “And twenty miles outside of Pittsburgh?”

I told him that’s precisely what I wanted. Task Rabbits are for fetching groceries, maybe hanging a TV, but I’d found a cache of Yamazaki 12, a rare Japanese whisky that had been cleared out of New York already. And it was cheap. The only way to grab it was the gig economy.

“State store number 0212. Make sure it’s the black box,” I said. “Grab what you can but leave enough for others. I’ll follow up with FedEx numbers when you score.”

The gambit was the latest in a line of increasingly desperate measures to stock my bar with Japanese whisky. It worked. A few days later, three neatly wrapped bottles of Suntory’s finest had arrived at my door for a total of $285, or $95 per bottle. That same whisky now sells online for $300 a bottle — and it’s climbing.

This was either a new low or a new high in my whiskey obsession. But anybody who’s trolled StockX for Off-White Nikes or waited on line outside a Kith store knows the tractor-beam pull of the grail; whatever your genre, it’s as much the hunt as the trophy that gets the adrenaline pumping.

Whiskey is different, though. It’s exhaustible, consumable — there’s a layer of urgency that doesn’t extend to sneakers or watches. These are anti-heirlooms, every bottle on borrowed time — or should be, assuming you’re not some cheap profiteer flipping bottles for a quick buck.

I got hooked on Japanese whisky in Japan. During a visit to Nikka’s Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido, I put down a procession of rare drams in the gift-shop bar for the price of a pickleback in the States. I toured the home of the founder of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru, and watched as a stout worker shoveled coal into ovens beneath giant copper pot stills, a traditional but highly inefficient method that’s been abandoned by virtually every other distillery in the world.

Back in Tokyo, I trolled a dozen convenience stores and liquor depots looking for a rare bottle to bring home: each shopkeeper would shrug and jab his chin toward a gap in the shelf like a missing tooth as if to say, “You really think it’d be that easy?”

I consoled myself on the top floor of the Park Hyatt, where the Suntory pitchman played by Bill Murray serenaded Scarlett Johannson’s character in Lost in Translation. The 2003 film was one of the first mainstream portrayals of Japanese whisky in American pop culture and sparked a burst of interest among the general public, even if whiskey writers had for years been touting the craftsmanship of Japanese distilling.

Then, back in my room, an electrifying discovery: a tiny bottle of Hibiki 17 in the minibar. I had a start to my collection, even if it was only 50 milliliters.

Back in the States the hunt continued. I craned my neck walking past liquor stores, scanning for telltale bottles and logos. I began to speed-read entire shelves like one uniform glyph. Dusty-bottle hunting is a practice unto itself, the art of finding long-forgotten bottles of old bourbon languishing on store shelves. In the right region, you never know what you might find.

The search wasn’t all shoe leather. I pored over Google maps and left breadcrumbs for future forays; on Instagram, I scanned geo-stamps of “haul pix” from other obsessives, zoomed in on their receipts and slid into their DMs with a sheepish “Any left?” (You haven’t truly experienced ghosting until you’ve asked a whiskey nerd where to get the good stuff.)

Whiskey is meant to be shared, but the profiteering has become fierce. This is especially true for Japanese brands. When a product sits for 17, 21, 30 or more years, it’s hard to size up the demand for future releases, and in 2018 Suntory announced that certain caches of its sublime age-statement Japanese whisky were starting to dry up. As it turns out, two decades ago Japanese drinkers were in the throes of a vodka obsession, so executives crimped the hose on the brown stuff.

Today, price gouging at certain unscrupulous bars means you can pay $100 for an ounce of certain Japanese whiskies, or $700 for bottles that used to retail for a tenth that cost. And while the imbalance between MSRP and bar price hasn’t yet reached the level of Pappy van Winkle, the rare Kentucky bourbon with a legendarily rabid following, anything with an age statement is marked up heavily and sold quickly.

That hasn’t stopped me. My head’s on a swivel and Instagram’s on alert. I’m in California now, and I’ve already found a bar with accessible, practically generous prices on many rare Japanese whiskies. I’ll even tell you where it is: Rye, on Geary Street.

More good news: a $60-bottle of Nikka called From the Barrel was just named Whiskey of the Year by Whiskey Advocate. It’s around. You can buy it, stockpile it, even drink it without restraint. If you’re looking to start your own collection, it’s a way in.

For now.

A version of this article originally appeared in Issue Nine of Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “Nowhere to Go but Gone.” Subscribe today.
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