My Encounter with an Endangered Japanese Whisky

My Encounter with an Endangered Japanese Whisky

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Hibiki 17
A fateful encounter in Tokyo with a bottle of Hibiki 17 led me to explore why Japanese whiskey is flying off shelves worldwide.

My colleague and I walked (okay, perhaps I should say confidently stumbled) into Bar Plum (バー・プラム) in search of Japanese whisky. The two waitresses sitting at the counter immediately stood to attention. Whatever gossip or shit-talking they’d been doing before we stepped foot inside stopped. Both let out their warmest Irasshaimase! and invited us to take their seats.

It’s fair to say my friend and I were the only gaikokujin (foreigners) in the bar. In fact, we were the only customers at all. Bar Plum was situated in the basement of an annex of Shinagawa station, immediately to the right as you leave the Takanawa gate, the gateway to Shinagawa’s major hotels. The annex has several floors filled with nothing but small izakaya (small plates shops) and bars, most offering food and drink for affordable prices that would make most Americans who live in major cities feel like they’d entered a time warp and returned to 1982.

In other words, there are plenty of affordable places here to eat and drink. Bar Plum is not one of them. While it served some cheaper drinks by the glass (mainly bottom-tier American and Japanese whisky that are hardly worth a serious drinker’s time and attention), you have to invest in a 700ml bottle to make the most of the experience. The bar would even kindly write your name on a tag and keep it in storage for up to a year so you could come back and enjoy it again.

In short, Bar Plum sold an experience — an opportunity, for a fleeting hour or two, to eat some light snacks and chocolates, chat with the staff, and pound back a few like a baller. It was by far the least economical deal available at Shinagawa Station, which is teeming with wonderful places to eat and drink no matter which way you exit the station. Under normal circumstances, I’d have balked buying a full bottle, especially since I never know exactly when my next trip back to Japan will be.

But these weren’t normal circumstances. As we sat down, we found ourselves face to face with the object of our desire: a beautiful bottle of Hibiki 17 year.

“This is our last one,” one of the waitresses said. “It’s a meeting of destiny!”

It was a hard sell, but a good one. I translated to my friend, and he smiled and nodded in that way that confirmed we’re doing this. We’d hemmed and hawed over this decision, but knowing we were sniping this bar’s last bottle sealed the deal for us: we were prepared to drop several hundred dollars on a glass bottle of clear brown liquid. So, I mused silently, this is how stupid decisions get made.


The Mad Rush on Japanese Whisky

As with most things in my life, that night was entirely my wife’s fault.

“Jay-jay!” she exclaimed while reading the paper one day. “Hibiki 17 is disappearing!”

Sure enough, it was the Alcoholic News of the Day in Japan. Suntory had announced that it would be pausing sales of both Hakushuu 12 year and Hibiki 17 year.

サントリーが「白州12年」「響17年」を販売休止 ハイボール人気で原酒が大幅不足 再開未定


Link (JP): Suntory’s “Hakushuu 12 Year”, “Hibiki 17 Year” Sales to Pause; Popularity of Highballs Leads to Widespread Shortage of Unblended Whisky; Restart Date TBD

As of this writing, the death knell has already sounded for Hakushuu 12, sales of which ceased in June. Hibiki 17 will officially go out of circulation in September. The shortage doesn’t seem to be affecting just these premium brands, however — it also seems to be having a knock-on effect on other lines in the brand. Plain, run-of-the-mill Hibiki is retailing for close to 10,000 yen a bottle (around $100), and its sale at airport duty-free shops in Japan is limited to one bottle per customer.

The reason for the shortage is simple: Suntory didn’t anticipate how popular its product would get and didn’t start producing enough a decade and a half ago to meet current demand. The pressure has come on two fronts — both domestic and international.

The Highball Boom

Domestically, Japan has been in the middle of a whisky boom for a while. Alcohol cut with soda is generally referred to as 酎ハイ (chuuhai), as it originally referred to the cutting of 焼酎 (shouchuu), a genre of rice or vegetable-based liquors. However, shouchuu isn’t very popular among young Japanese. More than that, alcohol consumption among the young in Japan is down in general, with many people still in a “post-bubble”, economizing mindset.

To combat this trend, Japanese alcohol producers have been looking for every angle they can exploit to get people drinking again. According to Nikkei Trendy (link now defunct), in 2008, Suntory used the combo of the actress Koyuki and the comedy duo Ogiyahagi to sell a refreshing drink consisting of a tall glass of soda and a shot or so of its cheapest Japanese whisky. (Watch one of the commercials here.)

The drink, a “Kaku highball”, had been around for many years. But it was mainly a staple of the geezer set. Suntory thought it could turn that around. Turns out they were right.


Up until this point, whisky was mainly bought for drinking by people in their 50s and 60s. In order to increase the number of fans in their 30s, Suntory set its sights on izakaya, standing drinking houses, bars, and other food service industry establishments. The number of establishments selling “Kaku highballs”, made with Suntory’s “Kakubin” whisky, rose last year [2008] from a few thousand stores up to around 28,000, already surpassing the company’s goal of 25,000 stores within the year.

Nikkei explains that the highball hits many sweet spots with young drinkers. Its light taste appeals to young women. It’s low calorie (a shot of whisky taps out at around 70 calories), so people who are watching their waistlines can have a little fun without busting their diets. (You can sweeten the drink naturally with a little lemon, or change it up and drink a ginger or cola highball if you want a sugar rush.) It’s also a low-cost drink, which appeals to Japanese consumers looking for cheap eats after a long night at the office. Finally, the low alcohol content (only about 8–10%) combined with the lack of sweeteners makes it easy to drink along with one’s meals. It’s also a tasty complement to fried foods.

Japanese Whiskey Highball
Highball with sausage, fries, and edamame from the Shinagawa Highball Bar, a short distance from the Konan Gate of Shinagawa Station.

Suntory’s first marketing assault was ten years ago, and the boom has only gotten…well, boomier. Several years ago, NHK’s popular morning drama series aired Massan, a tale of a young man who inherits his father’s whisky business. The story, based loosely on Japan’s Nikka distillery, sparked an even greater interest in Japanese whisky, and, as a byproduct, helped further fuel the popularity of highballs as a go-to drink. It’s hard to go into a restaurant in Japan any more and not find some variation of highballs on the menu. You can easily buy canned highballs from every supermarket and convenience store in the country. Even American brands Jim Beam and Jack Daniels have gotten into the action.

Japanese Model Lola and Jim Beam Highballs
“Compete with Lola! Drink a Jim Beam Highball and Join!” A poster featuring the Japanese model Lola advertising a prize contest centered around the Jim Beam Highball. I sent my wife this picture one night via text and asked her, “What’s this woman’s name?!” — oblivious that it was printed in large katakana right at the top of the poster. Seeing this photo still makes my wife burst out laughing.

Now, no one (I hope) is dumping Hibiki 17 into a tall glass of soda water. You can, however, easily get a highball made with regular Hibiki — and let me tell you, it is delicious as all get out.

Hibiki Highballs
I can’t for the life of me remember the name of this place, but it was freaking delicious.

But the general demand and newfound appreciation of Japanese whisky have boosted sales for Japanese whisky across the board. Additionally, the higher-end Japanese products have found as much success abroad as they have at home. Internationally, Japanese whisky is now the country’s number two alcohol export, running very close to “sake” (nihonshu, 日本酒, or Japanese rice wine), and surpassing export of domestic beers such as Asahi and Sapporo. 2017 saw a nearly 25% rise in international sales, with the number of bottles exported increasing by 32%.

In short, both Japan and the world at large are drinking the country out of one of its national treasures, one delicious bottle at a time.

Our Date with Destiny

My friend and I had had no intention of dropping $300 that evening. Well, let me revise: my friend certainly had no such intention. Having just cashed out a large stock grant, I want up for pretty much anything that didn’t involve wearing adult diapers or selling my blood.

Our evening had started respectably enough in a small izakaya in the same building that we had visited so many times the waitresses had begun recognizing us. We kicked things off with two mega highballs — which are like regular highballs, except big enough to drown a New York City rat in. No joke — these things were like small swimming pools with handles.

Already pretty bombed, but also aware that we were about to cross the reimbursable expense threshold, we set ourselves to find a decent whisky bar selling Hibiki by the glass. For some reason, we thought a bar in the Goos hotel was just the ticket…and quickly changed our minds when we saw the $50 price tag for a single glass of regular Hibiki. I kindly apologized to the waitress and we made our exit before she tagged us with a 2000 yen per person seat fee.

“You know,” I said, as we were stumbling around wide-eyed through Shinagawa, “the bottle bar is selling Hibiki 17 for around 23,000 yen [about $220]. If we’d had two apiece at the hotel, we’d already have spent that. It’s not a bad deal.”

This was drunk logic and made absolutely no sense. It was also partially driven by the fact that I was already pretty inebriated, and was losing my ability to type Japanese into my phone and find a suitable alternative location. Fortunately (or not), my friend was at approximately the same level of logical functioning…which is probably how we found our way back to Plum Bar.

Our waitresses were a Japanese woman who lived just north of Tokyo, and a Chinese permanent resident with an almost indiscernible accent to her Japanese. I feel guilty that I can’t tell you more about them, but I largely left the memories of our conversation in that bottle of Hibiki. I could never quite tell if the two were happy for the lull in the otherwise customer-less evening, or pissed that a couple of inebriated Americans had weaseled their way into a bar with no English menus. I spent a good hour acting as interpreter for my companion, whose Japanese is about as good as my Swahili — a task I found more bothersome the drunker I became.

As I sat there drinking far more than my sensible friend, I kept justifying the cost of this folly in my head. The bar sold us the bottle for around 23,000 yen — about half of what it goes for retail. Our 4000 yen a head sitting fee (ouch) brought our final tab, with tax, to around 34,000 yen. Meaning, even if we both came back once more to finish the bottle off before next year rolled around, we’d be walking away having had a full bottle of Hibiki 17 for about what we would’ve paid to quaff it in our hotel room. Once you factor in the life experience factor of having a fun story to share at dinner parties, I’d say we practically stole that bottle. (Actually, as of this writing, the charge still hasn’t appeared on my credit card, so we may, in fact, have stolen it. I’ll let you know when I go back to Tokyo this month whether there’s a warrant out for my arrest.)

An Unhappy Ending

We left the bar with our Hibiki 17 half demolished. Our waitress had us write our names on a tag, and she lovingly set the bottle aside in their storage room.

Unfortunately, Bar Plum closed about two months after I visited. They put out a call to customers to come and collect their bottles. It was a call I missed. I have no clue what happened to our half-consumed bottle of Hibiki 17. I can only hope the owners relished it sip by delicious sip as they boxed up their belongings.

I love Japanese whisky and keep a decent supply at home. But I have no idea when I’ll next taste Hibiki 17. At $500/bottle, it’s not a casual purchase. For now, I’ll make do with my memories. At least I got to enjoy – if even for a short time – one of the last bottles of Hibiki 17 Year left in the Land of the Rising Sun.


ジャパニーズウイスキー、世界を酔わす 国産酒輸出が過去最高更新、本場でも高まる人気 (1/3ページ). Sankei Business (link no longer available)

Suntory’s “Hakushuu 12 Year”, “Hibiki 17 Year” Sales to Pause; Popularity of Highballs Leads to Widespread Shortage of Unblended Whisky; Restart Date TBD (Japanese). Sankei Business (link no longer available)

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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