How to Find "Cheap" Rare Japanese Whisky
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
Most Japanese whisky collectors/drinkers know about Suntory "the Owner's Cask"bottles, generic single casks, and some of the famous rare blends from all the major Distilleries. They aren't even hard to find these days - you need not look further than your overpriced retail bottle shop, extremely overpriced secondary bottle shop, and mostly overpriced shops like Liquor Mountain in Japan. Additionally, rare bottles at market rate are easily found in a multitude of monthly auctions. However, all the famous and well rated bottles are extremely expensive, and the days of finding them for their release price are long gone. If you have deep pockets, this is not a problem, but most of us don't*. I still get a lot of people asking me if any rare Japanese whiskies out there that are still reasonably priced? My answer is emphatically yes! However, that depends on what you consider rare, what is 'reasonable' to you, your willingness to do research + take some educated guesses, and if you are only collecting to show off to others (as these will mostly be obscure and your friends likely won't know about them).
Step One - no famous stuff
Avoid whisky lauded by famous reviewers. Once they review the whisky with 90+ points, the price will almost always go up. Then more people will drink the whisky, rate it high, and the cycle continues until it becomes legendary both in taste and price. In addition, as people start paying astronomical prices for these bottles, the counterfeits will start creeping into the market and it will become a crap shoot to know if your whisky is real or not (biggest perpetrator: Card series Hanyu. I would NEVER buy one on auction).
Step Two - Embrace the Obscure
If high rated famous bottles are a no-no, then what's left? The obscure bottles that people don't know about or have overlooked!
The big boys like Nikka and Suntory have been distilling whisky for decades, so they have made their fair share of experimental releases and anniversary bottlings for individuals and companies. Most of these types of releases were done before the big Japanese whisky boom, had no advertising, and were only released inside of Japan. If you find a strange looking bottle (shape or label), there are some things to look for, which lead me to Step Three.
Step Three - It's In The Details
Standard bottle shapes are easy to pass up on shelfs or auctions. So pay attention to labels - in particular look for non-standard colors/labels, date ranges (example: 1950-2000), or anniversaries. Oftentimes, these are just special labels of standard whiskies. Occasionally, however, there are very unique bottles such as below:
Case 1: This bottle is a 17 year old Pure Malt blend of Hakushu + Yamazaki, bottled for the Ginza branch of GSK to celebrate their 80th anniversary. When I found this bottle, I almost passed it up as it was in the standard Suntory bottle and the label didn't really stand out from afar. Upon closer inspection, however, it was clear that it was unique - it had a company anniversary on it (GSK), a non-standard label color, a special design, and it was age-stated (not a standard statement for bottles of this shape, ie not Hibiki 17). I had no clue what GSK was, and had obviously never seen this before. I did as much research as I could but found no reviews and no mentions of it on the internet. But it was an age statement pure malt blend from Suntory, so I figured it was worth a shot. Granted this was not a single cask, and it was 43% abv, but it was still significantly cheaper than similar bottles of well known Suntory blends.
In addition to unique labels, there are unique bottle types. Most of the times, the odd shaped bottles are just normal releases in funky decanters to celebrate some anniversary, or they are a famous type of pottery with Hibiki 21 in them (those fancy Arita releases anyone?). The real special ones can be found....by paying attention to the details on the neck labels! Here you can find anniversary dates, age statements, or generic statements that give you a hint that there is something unique inside. That brings us to Case 2:
Case 2: This bottle is part of a long line of gorgeous ceramic releases by Suntory (I have found Suntory has had ceramic releases from the 70's-2000's). This one didn't call out any specific age or any specific type of release (like Suntory Old), instead it just says "Suntory Whisky." Upon researching this, I found there were many like this and they are generically called Suntory Special Bottle Collection. There wasn't much else about this bottle to be found, other than it it contained both malt and grain whisky.
I ended up being convinced to trade for this bottle, as it was an art piece as well as a special blended Suntory whisky. Later, I found out that the whisky inside was at least 20 years old! How did I know that? That leads us to the final step: Step Four!
Step Four - Research
Research is key. Researching the obscure whiskies mentioned above is definitely challenging, but using keywords like "anniversary," "XX year anniversary," or a specific company or hotel name + whisky distillery X can be useful. Once a bottle of interest is found, I like to research taste and general information.
When buying any whisky, I prefer to have found a review from a trusted palate confirming its deliciousness (this is especially true for expensive bottles). Sometimes that is whiskyfun.com, sometimes whiskymonitor.com, or of course whiskybase.com. If I can't find any from those guys, I will type the name of the bottle in google along with "review" and search. I will also look at google photos in case the reviewer has a picture of the whisky in the blog post (which is highly likely) and helps me narrow down the search results. Note you can do a reverse image search on google to help find the bottle too. If all else fails and you know the bottle's name in Japanese (Suntory example: bottle descriptor + サントリー), you can search for it in Japanese hoping to find an obscure blog that has reviewed it!
If you happen to find a review of the whisky, chances are there will be basic information about it too. If not, you can search for very specific tags on Instagram to see if anyone has posted about it. Oftentimes, the Instagram users will know some information about the bottle as well and put it in their post. For example, you could search for #suntoryGSK for Case 1 and #suntoryceramic or #suntroyspecialbottlecollection for Case 2. This rarely produces anything of merit, but once and awhile I find a nugget of information.
There is a fantastic and extremely comprehensive book of most Japanese whiskies ever released by all Japanese distillers (found here) [Please support the author by buying a hard copy of the book, although the website is a great reference too]. While the information is limited from this book, it oftentimes has the original release price (which can be telling of the quality of the whisky) and the release date (same).
Finally, search around on yahoo auctions Japan. A lot of obscure bottles pop up on there, and although you need to live in Japan to purchase the bottles (they don't ship abroad), the auction authors oftentimes put specific information on the posts which can be quite useful.
Here is what I learned after researching Case 1 and Case 2 bottles, using the suggestions above:
Case 1: No reviews found. GSK stands for Ginza Shakoinryou Kyokai (Ginza Social Food and Drink Association). It is a trade union of business owners of the social food and drink industry that is organized in Higashisha's Ginza area. It was founded in 1925 as the Ginza Hygiene Association, and then changed to GSK in 1929. Therefore, this bottle was either released in 2005 or 2009.
Case 2: No reviews found. Bottle is on whiskybase. Release date was obtained from a post on yahoo Japan - 1996. Also from yahoo Japan - information booklet that came with the bottle (mine had no booklet) states "the medium whisky is a limited edition that blends malt raw sake carefully selected from the treasures that have been aged for over 20 years and grain raw whisky that have been aged for more than 20 years." As Chita was founded in 1972, that means this is 20 year old Yamazaki or Hakushu (or both) blended with 20 year old Chita! Almost like a special version of Hibiki 20 😅 Additionally, the information booklet states that the ceramic is Oribe style, which I knew nothing about but found an interesting article on wikipedia here.
As you can see, with just a little bit of research I was able to identify the contents and history of the ceramic for Case 2, and date the release for both Case 1/2 - pretty successful!
These bottles are not found on shelves outside of Japan, and more than likely the Case 1 GSK release was never sold to the public and was only for members of GSK. They both contain some well aged name brand Japanese whisky. I would imagine both were very limited released - due to the member's only release of Case 1 and the hand crafted nature of Case 2. I paid significantly less than $800 each for these, which at current market rates for this type of whisky is a not bad. This just goes to show that rare *unusual* Japanese whisky can still be found for relatively good prices 😁
*if you know me, you know that I have some extremely expensive bottles and I have definitely paid current market rate on my fair share of them. I am by no means poor, but I am not rich. I just focus my extra income on whisky, which is a personal choice ☺️ Please only buy within your means! If you can't afford it, your best bet is to find a very generous friend 😇