Sotheby’s has opened bidding on its single-lot sale of a bottle of Japan’s oldest whisky, namely the Yamazaki 55, distilled by Japan’s most historical malt whisky distillery Yamazaki Distillery of Suntory.
Estimated at US$400,000-500,000, the Yamazaki 55 is the oldest and most valuable whisky ever bottled in Japan. The first cask was distilled in 1960 by Shinjiro Torii, Suntory’s founder, and aged in mizunara oak. The second and third casks were distilled in 1961 and 1964 by Suntory’s second master blender Keizo Saji, then aged in American white oak.
The whisky was laid down over half a century ago for three generations, until current Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo, grandson of the founder, selected and blended these casks to create what is considered a true masterpiece in the world of whisky
The bidding on the whisky at Sotheby’s is open until 17 June.
The Yamazaki 55 was initially released in 2020 in Japan via ballot for only JP¥3.3 million (US$31,000) each. Due its extremely limited offering internationally, bottles have since achieved six-figure prices at auction.
In 2020, Bonhams Hong Kong set a new record for the most expensive Japanese whisky sold at auction after a bottle of Yamazaki 55 Years Old was sold for HK$6.2 million (US$795,000).
According to Suntory‘s website, the Yamazaki 55 has an aroma of sandalwood and well-ripened fruit. By the palate, the whisky comes with a mixture of sweet and slightly bitter flavour, followed by a woody note from the Mizunara cask. The finishing is slightly bitter, with a fragrance like scented wood and a hint of smokiness.
Housed in a black Mizunara box, reflecting the casks used to age this historic whisky, the bottle is wrapped in layers of ink-black handmade echizen washi paper and fastened with a plaited cord made up of 24 individual strands. The whole packaging is a reflection of traditional Japanese crafts.
Jonny Fowle, Sotheby’s Head of Whisky, North America and EMEA, said, “A rise in whisky prices has led to new releases increasing in value, with Japanese whiskies among the most sought-after on the secondary market. Aged whiskies are now quite limited in Japan, so much so that Suntory’s aged statement brands have either been discontinued or are only released on highly limited allocation. The Yamazaki 55 is the preeminent whisky from this scarce supply, and it sits in a league of its own. An example of when price is matched not just by rarity, but by quality, this whisky epitomises the key elements collectors search for in a collectible whisky: dark, heavily sherried whisky released in limited numbers with a very high-age statement.”
The origin of Japanese whiskey
Japan’s love towards whisky can be dated back to 1853, when a US naval officer named Matthew Commodore Perry arrived in Japan at the end of the Edo period. The Tokugawa Shogunate enforced a strict rule of isolation at that time, meaning that no Japanese nationals could leave and no foreign visitors could enter.
Commodore Perry brought peace offerings – namely a white flag and a barrel of American whiskey – and the Shogunate was wooed by his approach to negotiation. As laws concerning isolation relaxed afterwards, whisky imports began.
The popularity of whisky in Japan encouraged local brewers and distillers to recreate the dark spirits and gave rise to the two most famous Japanese whisky figures – Shinjiro Torii, founder of Suntory; and Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Nikka Whisky Distilling and son of a sake brewer.
Shinjiro Torii founded a small wine store called Torii Shoten (former name for Suntory) in 1899 with the goal to create western-style liquors for Japanese palates. Before launching Nikka Whisky, Taketsuru worked in Torii’s company for over 10 years.
In 1923, they landed in the village of Yamazaki on the outskirts of Kyoto after a hunt for a perfect location for their distillery. In 1929, the Yamazaki Distillery launched Japan’s first authentic whisky, Suntory Whisky Shirofuda.
Masataka Taketsuru, known as the “Father of Japanese Whisky”, has contributed his Scottish knowledge for distillation to the Japanese whisky development after a three-year sojourn in Scotland working at Longmorn, Bo’ness and Hazelburn Distilleries. He later established Nikka Whisky, one of the most popular Japanese Whisky companies in 1934.
His journal entitled “Report of Apprenticeship: Pot Still Whisky” has become the ultimate manual for Japanese whisky-making.
Nobody could have anticipated the quality of the whiskies from Japan’s first ever Single Malt distillery would go on to produce, nor the values that their bottles would command at auction nowadays.