Another casualty of the COVID Olympics ... Japanese whisky

·Columnist
·5 min read

TOKYO — In 1964, the last time Japan hosted the Olympics, the Suntory distillery, the nation’s oldest, moved a batch of then 4-year-old whisky from a mizunara oak cask to a white oak cask.

The liquor was left untouched for decades.

That includes the last few years when the Japanese whisky industry blew up internationally, both in terms of sales and respect for the product. In 2012, Japan exported about $22 million (U.S.) in whisky. By 2020, it was nearly $250 million and growing quickly (up 28.2 percent year over year).

As a promotional effort, Suntory decided it would link the Olympics of 1964 with the Olympics of 2020, which is finally set to hit full stride Friday in Tokyo. It would release 100 commemorative bottles of its prized batch and market it around the Summer Games.

The “Yamazaki 55” single malt would serve as a peripheral chance for Japanese whisky to tap into the global spotlight of, and excitement in, the Olympics and hopefully gain even more worldwide prominence ... and, of course, demand.

It’s what businesses — entire industries even — do when their country hosts the Games.

Suntory was hardly alone. The nation’s so-called “smallest distillery,” Chichibu, planned on releasing its “The First Ten” batch in conjunction with the Games. Another newish whisky maker, Akkeshi, used the colors of the Olympic rings on the labels of their bottles.

“It’s extraordinarily competitive,” Liam McNulty, an American who has lived in Tokyo since 2007 and runs an influential lifestyle and whisky site, nomunication.jp, said of the high-end Japanese whisky market.

“Demand [leads] to unopened bottles being sold in secondary markets for five times, 10 times, or 20 times their suggested retail price. Or worse: counterfeit bottles,” McNulty said. “Even under 3-year matured releases from unproven new market entrants are snapped up so quickly that most retailers have introduced some lottery-based system to allocate ‘buying rights’ to consumers.”

JAPAN - 2019/12/23: Japanese alcoholic brand, Suntory Whisky seen at a supermarket in Tokyo. (Photo by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Distilleries such as Suntory hoped to use the Tokyo Olympics as a vehicle to promote Japanese whisky. (Photo by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This is the kind of business story Japanese whisky wanted the world to hear. This was a chance for the hills of Japan to become as synonymous with whiskey as Ireland or Tennessee have been for generations. It’s the ancillary benefits that governments cite as reason to spend billions to host the Games.

Except the 2020 Olympics were postponed a year. While the cauldron will finally be lit on Friday, due to COVID restrictions, the competitions will take place with no international visitors or even local fans. It isn't just the stands that will be empty. So, too, will Tokyo’s entertainment districts, where bars have been shuttered and liquor sales prohibited.

The chance to show and share the product with the world is limited, if not gone. There will be few, if any, press stories or social media posts from athletes, well-heeled travelers or journalists about the local nightlife where the Highball — Japanese whisky, soda water and ice — is the prevailing respite from the heat and humidity of summer.

"The Olympics have become a lost opportunity for Japan's distillers,” David Flemming, executive editor of Whisky Advocate magazine, told Yahoo Sports. “With safety now the prime concern, the bells and whistles normally provided by an Olympic platform will be muted at best."

It is a sign of how brutal it is trying to stage an Olympics with no fans and heavy restrictions — and not just for the IOC. It impacts everything from major corporate sponsors to mom-and-pop stores, stadium-area bars and restaurants and, indeed, even whisky.

“The setback is significant for Japanese retailers as the now unlikely influx of any international visitors, combined with Tokyo's most recent state of emergency declaration, means they are now being denied the spillover benefits of tourism spending [hospitality, hotels and entertainment],” said Patrick Kinch, an analyst for GlobalData, a London-based business analytics firm.

“For brands, crowd restrictions create a conundrum of them essentially having a product they didn't pay for, as full crowds would have been assumed at the time of securing contracts with the IOC,” Kinch continued. “Reduced crowds mean less atmosphere, which may alter the TV viewing experience for millions around the world, leaving the IOC's sponsors having a multi-million dollar partnership with less value for money given potential audience drops.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. IOC president Thomas Bach deemed Tokyo “the best-ever prepared city for the Olympic Games” — an ideal mesh of technology, logistics and hospitality.

COVID changed everything, however. The Games have gone from a three-week celebration of everything Japanese to a somewhat sterile television production just hoping to muddle through.

Fortunately for Japan’s whisky distillers, the combination of its balanced taste and scarcity of supply, hasn’t tempered business.

After all, even without the preferred Olympic tie-in last year, those bottles of “The First Ten” from Chichibu are currently selling for $2,000-$3,000 on the secondary market. And when a first edition bottle of “Yamazaki 55” went to auction last August, Games or no Games, it was still expected to fetch between $75,000 and $100,000.

Instead it went for a cool $795,000.

Yes, just one bottle.

Who needs Simone Biles after all?

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