The history of whisky distillation in Japan dates back to the 19th century, but it took until the 21st century for the wider world to catch on. The demand for Japanese whisky has increased significantly over the past 15 years, in Japan as well as overseas.
Hard times have led many Japanese drinkers to forego imported spirits and drink local ones. At the same time, interest outside Japan in spirits from less obvious sources than Scotland, Ireland and North America has grown, producing a thirsty export market.
As the way the Japanese distillers have chosen to spell "whisky" shows, their spirits have been modelled on Scotch whisky rather than Irish or North American whiskey.
Some Japanese whiskies, in fact, are blended with Scotch - because the blenders prefer importing spirit to buying from their competitors.
Two companies dominate the market - Suntory and Nikka - but both produce a large range of spirits. Suntory owns the Hakushu and Yamazaki distilleries, while Nikka owns the Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries.
Yamazaki, founded in 1923, is the oldest whisky distillery in Japan still in service. As in Scotland, some distilleries are "silent", meaning that they have ceased production either temporarily or permanently.
Stocks of old Japanese whiskies are in limited supply, and this has driven up prices, and made some of them highly collectable - particularly those from distilleries which are not currently active.
Some notable examples will go under the hammer tonight (August 15) at Bonhams Hong Kong Gallery in One Pacific Place, starting at 7pm. Billed as "Asia's largest Japanese whisky auction," the catalogue lists 200 lots of rare Japanese spirits, as well as 64 lots of Scottish whisky.
"Japanese whisky remained in the background of the international whisky market scene until the mid-2000s when whiskies such as the King of Diamonds from the Hanyu Cards series started scooping up international whisky awards," says Daniel Lam, Bonhams wine and whisky specialist.
"It was selected as the Editor's Choice by the UK's Whisky Magazine. Two of Clubs, from the same series, was the winner at the Tokyo Whisky Trade Show in 2007, and the 25-year-old Yamazaki won the prize for the World's Best Single Malt Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards 2012. Since then, Japanese whiskies have been gaining international recognition," says Lam.
Interest in collecting Japanese whisky has strengthened significantly over the past five years, and prices have risen accordingly.
"Bonhams Hong Kong started auctioning Japanese whisky in 2012 when we anticipated the overwhelming demand for collectable Japanese whisky, and the auction results reflected the demand.
"For example, a Karuizawa 1986 was auctioned for HK$7,140 in November 2012, and HK$9,800 in November 2013, and HK$12,250 in May 2014. Another example is the Karuizawa 1966 21 Year Old which was sold for HK$73,500 in November 2013, with a similar one sold for HK$98,000 in May 2014," says Lam.
Hanyu and Karuizawa ceased production in 2000 and 2001 respectively, and many of the whiskies in the August 15 auction come from those distilleries.
"Most of the whisky collectors we have come across at Bonhams Wine and Whisky auctions are interested in collecting Japanese whisky from the silent distilleries," says Lam.
"The most sought-after silent Japanese distilleries are Hanyu and Karuizawa. Whisky which has undergone a long period of ageing has gained a great deal of interest from whisky collectors, too. The interest in a Yamazaki 50-year-old whisky was so intense that it was auctioned for a record-breaking price of HK$245,000 in May 2014."
Although these whiskies have a strong appeal to Asian buyers - notably in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and in the mainland - Lam says there is interest from the US and Europe.
"Whisky collectors we have come across look at the quality and the characteristics of the whisky rather than the region it comes from. Japanese whisky is definitely part of the whisky auction scene," Lam says.
Collectors attending the auction will need deep pockets, as well as an appreciation for whisky. The low estimate for a bottle of Yamazaki 50 Year Old is HK$150,000. That's still a lot less than the low estimate for a 55 Year Old Macallan in Lalique crystal, which is expected to make at least HK$240,000. Both could go for much more.