The rise of the popularity in Japanese whisky over the past decade has come as something of a surprise in recent years. In the nineties, the image of a Japanese salesman trying to sell his country’s whisky, going from bar to bar in Scotland and being laughed out of every pub was created in the book “Distilled” by Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley. Fast forward twenty years and Japanese whisky is regarded as some of the best in the world.
Regarded so highly, in fact, that there is now a Scottish brand ambassador in the role to spread the good word of this liquid from the land of the rising sun, and no one is laughing him out of anywhere.
Johnnie Mundell has held this position since 2015, during which time he has created an educational programme aimed at bartenders and retailers in the industry to feature Suntory’s newer, more widely-available bottlings of Hibiki Harmony, and Suntory Toki. Both non-age statement blends are two bottlings of a common switch for distillers to not producing single-age statement whiskies any more. Simply because they cannot be made quick enough.
The year was 2014 when Jim Murray announced that the 2013 Sherry cask Yamazaki was the best whisky in the world. Suddenly the global inventory virtually disappeared almost overnight. Suntory employees in Japan are even forbidden to drink their own product, so scarce is the supply.
At almost the same time I set up the first dedicated whisky bar in Vietnam, at Sorae, sourcing over 100 whiskys and whiskies from around the world that were legally allowed in the country. No hand carry in sight. I negotiated a deal with the Vietnam supplier of Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu to allocate 100% of their remaining stock to be sold exclusively for the whisky bar at Sorae and nowhere else.
It was around this time that Jim Murray made his announcement: creating an even greater negative supply vs demand. At the time of opening, the list price for Yamazaki 12 was VND3,800,000 a bottle, with the Yamazaki 18 coming in at VND12,600.000 per bottle. By the time Jim Beam Suntory announced their take over, the original supply in Vietnam had all but dried up, and the Suntory Asia director met me in person to inform me that the allocation for Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu in the Vietnam market for 2015 was zero. Fantastic news for the largest Japanese whisky bar in the country to be told 6 months after opening!
This news sent a strong message, that Vietnam was not a market that it considered worth selling to.
Thus, began the scramble for stockpiling the last remaining bottles, but all too late, eventually leading to the bottles being delisted from the menus altogether.
Shri Restaurant and Lounge manager Richie Fawcett is an artist who sits on Asia’s 50 best bars voting panel.