Japanese whisky the ‘first growth’ of spirits

Rickesh Kishnani, head of Platinum Wines and the Whisky Investment Fund has said that Japanese whisky is the “first growth” of spirits due to an overwhelming demand from Chinese collectors.

Rickesh Kishnani

In recent years Hong Kong and China, and other established Asian markets such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan have developed a seemingly unstoppable taste for whisky. Hong Kong’s auctions regularly headline single malts and Japanese whisky brands which sell for way over their estimates.

At a Bonham’s auction in August 2015, a bottle of 1960 Karuizawa ‘The Cockerel’ from the now-silent distillery in Nagano Prefecture set a world record, selling for HK$918,750 (£93,400) and an earlier dbHK interview with Hong Kong’s whisky specialist, Fine Vintage, referred to the “chronic shortage” of Japanese whisky in Hong Kong as demand outstrips supply.

“The current consumption fad in Asia really started with Japanese whisky,” said Rickesh Kishnani, the head of Platinum Wines and the world’s first whisky private equity group, The Whisky Investment Fund.

“In simple terms, Japan is closer geographically than Scotland and the yen has been low for the last few years. Plenty of tourists travel there from Hong Kong and China and for Asian speakers, the names are much easier to pronounce. It sounds basic but it’s how people initially get into the market.

“Japanese whisky is akin to First Growth Bordeaux because it’s relatively easy to understand. With the First Growths, you just refer to the 1855 Classification and with Japanese whisky you have the big brands, Yamazaki, Hibiki, Karuizawa, Akashi and Ichiro for example and it’s a clear system that 18 years is better than 12, 12 is better than 10 etc.”

Kishnani referred to the overall “broadening” of the market where consumers look to alternatives – Scotch single malts for example – after becoming familiar with a particular category.

“There’s more to whisky than Macallan,” he said. “Macallan is the most popular whisky in Asia, again a big advantage it has over other brands is that it’s easy to pronounce. Bunnahabhain is not so well known perhaps because for that reason.

“Regarding Scotch, people are looking to the rest of Speyside, Islay, the Highlands and knowledge is increasing but misunderstandings still arise. We had a Chinese client who bought a 40 year old Glenlivet which was aged in Bourbon casks so it was lighter in colour and he immediately assumed it was fake.”

Kishnani outlined that the most established whisky markets in Asia are Japan, Korea and Taiwan. “They’ve got great access to whisky already and the knowledge is high. The Japanese have always had a fascination with Scotch ever since Masataka Taketsuru apprenticed in Scotch whisky distilleries for two years and then founded Nikka whisky in 1920.”

Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai are ‘tier two’ with interest blossoming over the last four or five years.

“Single malts didn’t even exist as a concept in Asia in the 1980s and 1990s”, he said. “Blends, such as Chivas and Johnnie Walker have been around forever but it’s only when distilleries started closing down and supply started running out that people began to pay attention to old and rare single malts in particular.

“When whisky is made in abundance it’s not of interest, but this recent huge interest in expressions from silent stills means that we are facing a severe shortage of old and rare single malts.”

No joker: Expressions from silent stills such as Rosebank, and Ichiro’s Playing Card series are always going to be in high demand

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