Japanese whisky makes up a small, but growing, share of overall whiskey sales on Drizly. Yet the category deserves special attention for a number of factors, including an average unit price point more than double the average price of whiskey sold on Drizly, interest from a young consumer base, and a high percentage of gift orders that is likely to increase going into the holiday season.

Rising Interest in Luxury Whiskey

The Japanese whisky category has grown on Drizly in a number of ways since this point last year. Its share of the total whiskey category on Drizly increased 13 percent (from 3.8 percent at this point last year to a 4.3 percent share in 2021 to date). Additionally, the average unit price of Japanese whisky on Drizly increased to $79.38 in 2021 to date, compared to $74.66 in the same time period in 2020. The increase puts Japanese whisky even further into luxury spirits territory: the average whiskey unit price on Drizly in 2021 to date is $36.72.

This tracks with the wider premiumization in spirits. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, luxury spirits have grown at an annual rate of 17.7 percent from 2015 to 2020, compared to just 2.5 percent across all spirit brands. The luxury whiskey category, which many Japanese whiskies fall into, has seen an annual growth rate of 11.1 percent in the same time period.

Japan’s whisky exports are up 233 percent in sales value since 2013, according to a 2020 report from the Foreign Agricultural Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. The growth is led almost entirely by Suntory Holdings (which owns Yamazaki, Hakushu, Chita, and others) and Asahi Group Holdings (Nikka, Yoichi, and Miyagikyo). The two companies control more than 90 percent of Japanese whisky production. 

“The uptick in Japanese whisky interest, I believe, has stemmed from the overall interest in whisky in general,” says Alex Le, the owner of Nasa Liquor in Houston.

Who is Buying Japanese Whisky?

Whiskey subcategories like Scotch, as well as the overall whiskey category, tend to skew older. Japanese whisky, however, is an outlier in that Gen Z (six percent Japanese whisky share versus three percent of Drizly’s overall share of sales) and millennials (67 percent share versus 60 percent) over-index on the category, while Gen X (24 percent share versus 29 percent) and baby boomers (4 percent versus 8 percent) underperform.

Markets that over-index on Japanese whiskey sales are New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, Chicago, and Miami. 

In Le’s experience, Nasa Liquor customers who seek out Japanese whisky are most often also interested in other single malt whiskeys.

The Top Selling Japanese Whiskies on Drizly

While the average Japanese whisky unit price on Drizly has gone up, the top-selling SKUs and brands have stayed relatively stable from 2020 to 2021. Despite Japanese whisky’s high-price reputation, two of Suntory’s more affordable offerings, Hibiki Japanese Harmony and Toki, top the list and are popular SKUs for people to mix into highballs and cocktails.

Drizly’s Best-Selling Japanese Whisky SKUs, 2021 to Date

  1. Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky
  2. Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky
  3. Yamazaki 12 Year Old Whisky
  4. Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
  5. Nikka Whisky From The Barrel
  6. Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky
  7. Akashi White Oak Japanese Blended Whisky
  8. Hakushu 12 Year
  9. Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky
  10. Kaiyo Mizunara Oak Japanese Whisky

Compared to 2020, the top five fastest-growing Japanese whisky brands on Drizly in 2021 to date are Shinobu Distillery, Kojiki, Fuyu, Gyokusendo, and Shinju.

The top-selling bottles are a mix of whiskies distilled and bottled entirely in Japan and world whiskies, which source and blend some or all of a bottle’s spirit from places like Scotland, the U.S., or Canada.

Eli Raffeld, the co-founder of High Road Spirits, which is the parent company of a number of Japanese whiskies, says world whisky blend SKUs will be more prevalent in upcoming years. This includes options from Nikka and Suntory, as well as from smaller brands like Akashi Whisky, Chichibu, and Akkeshi.

“In about five years we will start to see some age-statement whiskies again from Japan, but until then it will be blends and pure malts,” says Raffeld. 

Le says that Japanese whisky knowledge, including knowing which are world whisky blends and which are not, is the key to creating a balance of options where consumers can find the Japanese whisky they’re looking for.

“There’s that gray area with no legal boundaries yet, and it’s the responsibility of the owner or curator to know the difference to bring the best experience to the consumer,” says Le.

A Special Category for Gifting

In 2021 to date, 32 percent of Japanese whisky sales are gift orders, up from 19 percent during the same period in 2020. That makes it the most-gifted whiskey subcategory, followed by Scotch (26 percent) and single malt (24 percent). With the holiday season still to come, the category will likely see more gift orders.

“In December 2020, gift share peaked to a 20 percent share of total sales on Drizly,” Paquette says. “We expect that to be even higher during this holiday season as gift share is pacing above last year.”

Drizly’s Most-Gifted Japanese Whisky SKUs, 2021 to Date

  1. Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky
  2. Yamazaki 12 Year Old Whisky
  3. Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
  4. Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky
  5. Nikka Whisky From The Barrel
  6. Hakushu 12 Year
  7. Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky
  8. Akashi White Oak Japanese Blended Whisky
  9. Kaiyo Mizunara Oak Japanese Whisky
  10. Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky

Looking Ahead for Japanese Whisky

As of now, Paquette says Drizly has heard fewer shortage concerns about Japanese whisky compared to other categories. Still, the growing category is no stranger to shortages in previous years, and Q4 product shortages could make Japanese whisky harder to stock.

“We have not heard as many shortage concerns about Japanese whisky as other categories, but it is certainly a possibility given the growth of the category driving up demand,” says Paquette. “We recommend retailers plan ahead for holiday sales and gifting by stocking up early.”

This is especially true when it comes to the top-selling and higher-priced SKUs.

“For expensive and quality Japanese whisky, the most important consideration is working with your distributor to actually be able to get those high-priced Japanese whiskies in,” says Le. “Most are allocated and very limited, so establishing a good relationship with the distributor and your account team is the secret to getting those high-dollar Japanese whiskies in.”