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In the world of wines and spirits, the Japanese whisky phenomenon exploded on the scene in 2014 when journalist and critic Jim Murray proclaimed a single malt whisky from the Yamazaki distillery “the best in the world.”* Since then, prices and demand worldwide have skyrocketed, sending retailers into a spin as they try to locate these precious goods.
Whisky 101 – Where it started and what’s popular in Japan
Whisky production in Japan began around 1870, but the first commercial production began in 1924. Today, two of the best known and most widely available distilleries are Suntory and Nikka, both of which have created winning combinations while successfully catering to a diverse audience and changing up flavor profiles. Yamazaki is also one of the premier Japanese distilleries, as their bottles routinely fetch high values at auction.
Many of these whiskies are high end – ranging from $75-$200 and up per bottle. Well-aged vintages such as Hibiki 17, Hibiki 21, Ichiro’s Malt “On The Way” and Ichiro’s Malt “The Peated” routinely sell for $500 or more. In 2017, a bottle of 52-year-old Karuizawa whisky sold for $129,000 at auction, breaking the record for a single malt whisky. In 2018, a 50-year-old Yamazaki sold for $299,000. Daniel Lam, director of wine and spirits at Bonhams in Hong Kong stated, “A Yamazaki 18 now, compared to last year, has gone up by 20%.”
A recent New York Times article notes that relatively relaxed regulations in Japan and a growing demand for aged Japanese whisky have led to Japanese distilleries using whisky imported from Scotland and Canada to boost their inventory. Distilleries like Nikka are open about their use of whisky made in their Scottish distillery to create custom blends. Other distilleries are not so transparent. It is important to do your research and work with knowledgeable dealers and/or auction houses to confirm that you are buying what you expect.
Imagine collecting 10 or 20 of these whiskies. You can see how your collection can add up in value. Therefore, protecting these bottles is paramount.
Risks and Rewards
The risks to collecting Japanese whiskies are much the same as the risks of collecting any fine wine. Collectors should make sure the whisky’s value is regularly reviewed and insure their bottles on a valuable articles policy which provides coverage for fire, flood, theft, breakage, and more.
Talk to your insurance agent about the policy that’s right for you. As the public’s interest in Japanese whiskies continues to grow, demand will remain high, rendering it difficult to quickly replace any lost or damaged items.
Jessie Spigel is a fine art specialist for Chubb Personal Risk Services.
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