Photo/IllutrationThe Kavalan Taiwanese whiskey on sale at the liquor section of the Kintetsu department store in Osaka’s Abeno Ward in October (Dai Narusawa)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Whiskey imports from unexpected places are increasing in Japan to cover the shortage of Japanese-made spirits caused by the growing popularity of highballs.

In autumn last year, shoppers seeking “seibo” year-end gifts were surprised to find “whiskey from Taiwan” at a Japanese and foreign liquor section of the Kintetsu department store in Osaka’s Abeno Ward.

A 700-milliliter bottle of Taiwanese Kavalan single malt whiskey was available for at least 4,500 yen ($41.50), excluding tax.

In Scotland, the homeland of the spirit, whisky is said to require at least three-year maturing periods. That type of alcoholic drink is produced in Hokkaido and other cold areas in Japan.

In Taiwan, located in a subtropical zone, whiskey matures “three to four times faster than in Scotland due to its hot climate,” according to Osaka-based Itochu-Shokuhin Co., which imports Kavalan, an emerging whiskey brand in Japan.

The Taiwanese whiskey is distilled by beverage maker King Car Group Co., which started producing whiskey more than 10 years ago.

The company entered the whiskey business with a bang in the 2000s, when private companies were permitted to make alcoholic drinks in Taiwan. Its products were chosen as the world’s best single malt whiskey in the globally renowned World Whiskies Awards for two consecutive years.

“The whiskey goes in the opposite direction of traditional brands that require long maturing periods,” said Mitsunori Arashika, an official of the Kintetsu department store, who sampled Kavalan. “I did not know the brand, but it is aromatic.”

Tokyo-based food wholesaler Kokubu Group Corp. in late 2017 started importing the single malt brand Paul John from India. Prices of 700-milliliter bottles start from 6,000 yen before tax.

“We received a proposal and imported our first whiskey from a hot nation,” Takashi Amijima, a Kokubu Group official, said. “We would have not accepted the proposal 10 years ago, but Japan-made whisky is currently in short supply and demand is growing for foreign-distilled brands.”

Paul John, which matures as quickly as the Taiwanese whiskey, has been given high recognition in an annual whiskey guide.

Amijima said whiskey demand is also increasing in China and emerging nations, and the Kokubu Group has received offers to import whiskey products from Australia and New Zealand.

The popularity in Japan of highballs, a combination of whiskey and soda, has been fueled by “Massan,” a Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) drama series that aired in fiscal 2014 and was set in a distillery in Hokkaido.

First in short supply were 17-year and 12-year products, as well as other long-matured vintage brands. Relatively cheap products are suffering from shortages as well.

Major Japanese whisky makers are strengthening production to improve the situation.

Kirin Brewery Co. is considering its first capital investment in a half century in its Fuji Gotenba distillery in Shizuoka Prefecture to increase the stock of unblended whisky.

The company earlier announced it will suspend sales of its 700-milliliter Fuji-Sanroku Tarujuku Genshu 50 whisky available for 1,700 yen, including tax, by the end of this fiscal year.

“The sales suspension is aimed at buying time for maturing and providing high quality whisky,” said Jota Tanaka, 56, a master blender of Kirin Brewery.

Suntory Spirits Ltd. plans to enhance its storage capacity by 20 percent by 2020 compared with 2017 through an 18-billion-yen investment in the storage facilities of its Hakushu distillery in Yamanashi Prefecture and elsewhere.

Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. made capital investments totaling 6 billion yen over three years from 2015. It also resumed operations of some facilities at the Miyagikyo distillery in Sendai.

(This article was written by Akifumi Nagahashi and Dai Narusawa.)