Japan's farmers driven to drink

Whisky boom boosted by overseas sales.
Ichiro Akuto, president of Venture Whiskey Ltd., poses for a photograph at the company's Chichibu distillery. Photo / Bloomberg
Ichiro Akuto, president of Venture Whiskey Ltd., poses for a photograph at the company's Chichibu distillery. Photo / Bloomberg

Japan's burgeoning whisky business is driving rice farmer Hiroshi Tsubouchi to hit the booze.

With domestic rice consumption sliding, Tsubouchi, 36, says he's getting on the whisky bandwagon - or, at least, switching to the barley used to make it. With Japanese whiskies ranking among the best - and most expensive - in the world, the profits of the local distillery industry are beginning to flow to the country's farmers.

Tsubouchi will reap his first crop next month, joining a dozen farmers in central Japan testing barley's potential to bolster incomes and help feed the nation's malt-hungry spirit-makers.

"I never expected our Japanese whiskies to be so popular overseas," says Ichiro Akuto, 50, whose single malts sell for as much as 100,000 yen ($1308) a bottle.

His distillery, Venture Whisky, in Chichibu, has won awards every year from 2007 to 2012.

In Jim Murray's Whisky Bible for 2015, Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013, a single malt made by Tokyo-based Suntory Holdings, was named "World Whisky of the Year," while Asahi Group's Nikka Taketsuru 17 Years won the "World's Best Blended Malt" title at the World Whiskies Awards last year.

That has propelled the popularity of Japanese whiskies, leading to shortages and surging prices. Though most Japanese whisky is consumed domestically, last year the country sold a record 10.4 billion yen of it abroad, an eleven-fold increase over the past decade.

A bottle of 1960 Karuizawa sold for HK$918,750 ($169,000) in Hong Kong last August, setting an auction record for a Japanese whisky. One of only 41 bottles ever made, and aged 52 years in casks, the Karuizawa is considered the holy grail of Japanese whiskies by collectors.

Whisky supplies have become so tight that Suntory president Takeshi Niinami has asked his staff to follow his lead and try abstaining from the company's premium malts.

Suntory, the country's biggest distiller, will spend 5 billion yen this year to expand production, adding to the 7 billion yen spent on expansion since 2010, says spokeswoman Hasumi Ozawa.

Whisky maker Akuto expects shipments from his Chichibu distillery to increase by 20 per cent a year. Last year he sold 100,000 bottles - a third of which went overseas to customers who are mostly in Britain, France, the US and Taiwan.

Increasing whisky production has been a boon for British farmers, whose barley has become the backbone of Japanese distilling operations.

Akuto wants to replace 10 per cent of the distillery's grain requirement with barley grown by farmers in Chichibu. Even if it costs five times more to produce malt from locally grown barley than to import it, changing the source may improve the perception of the quality of the whisky, Akuto says.

"I feel very proud of becoming a supplier to a whisky-maker," says rice farmer Tsubouchi.

He bought and rented 0.6ha of uncultivated land from nearby farms to grow barley for Venture Whisky. He's planting Golden Melon, a malting-barley variety recommended by Saitama agriculture authorities, who preserved the seed after farmers grew it successfully in the prefecture four decades ago.

If all goes to plan, 1.2 tonnes of grain will be harvested next month, Akuto says.

That will be used in his Chichibu malting plant - a 20 million-yen facility that has the capacity to produce 50 tonnes of malt a year.

"I am the happiest person in the world as my whisky is not only giving people a lot of pleasure, it is also creating a new industry here and reinvigorating farming," he says.

- Bloomberg

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