Japanese whisky shot to global prominence around a decade ago when it began regularly winning international awards. Japanese distillers like Suntory, which makes the Hibiki and Yamazaki brands, didn’t have enough stock to meet a tsunami of demand, and supplies dried up. High-end whiskies have to mature in barrels for several years before being bottled and sold.
Japanese whisky isn’t unique for its scarcity and high prices, but unlike other hot brands such as Pappy Van Winkle, the notoriously hard-to-get bourbon, the widespread absence of Japanese whisky from the market isn’t deliberately manufactured. Rather, Japanese whisky makers didn’t foresee the rapid increase in demand for their products in the early 2010s in time to start producing more.
Last year, Suntory said it would discontinue sales of two of its most popular whiskies because of dwindling supplies, including 17-year-old Hibiki, which appeared in a mock television commercial featuring an aging actor played by Bill Murray in the 2003 movie “Lost in Translation.” Suntory spokeswoman Hasumi Ozawa said the company had raised production of whisky but the long maturation process means it is hard to determine when supplies will be able to meet demand. Suntory has invested over $300 million to boost whisky production since 2013, she said.
Suntory staff occasionally joke they aren’t allowed to drink their own whisky to preserve supplies.
Meantime, price inflation has pushed some drinkers to explore other options. At Butler, another Hong Kong whisky bar, a shot of 12-year-old Yamazaki goes for around $30. Bartender Yuta Inagaki says that’s how much a whole bottle of the spirit—his favorite drink—cost when he left Japan for Hong Kong in 2014. He cites a mention by Beyoncé of Yamazaki whisky in a 2016 song as a symbol of the drink’s transition to a luxury item.