It is Friday night, the band is in full swing and the glasses are clinking at Maduro, a swanky bar in Tokyo's Grand Hyatt hotel. Behind the bar counter, candy-coloured drinks bottles gleam beneath a magnificent gas-lamp chandelier, including some of the 300 whiskies Madura boasts among its line-up. But one category is conspicuously under-represented - Japanese whisky. "We used to have so many Japanese whiskies we couldn't get them all on the menu. But lately we can't source as many because of their huge popularity," the bartender explains.
It is a grievance shared by whisky connoisseurs around the world. Japanese whisky is enjoying an unprecedented surge in demand thanks to high-profile awards and growing international enthusiasm for Japanese culture and cuisine.
In the past decade or so, Japanese whisky brands have lapped up a string of prestigious awards at renowned competitions, including International Spirits Challenge and World Whisky Awards. The latest triumph for Japanese whisky came last November when whisky guru, Jim Murray, crowned Beam Suntory's Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best whisky in the world. In his 2015 Whisky Bible, Murray hailed the Yamazaki 2013 as "near indescribable genius", and gave it 97.5 points out of 100.
That victory coincided at home with the airing of Massan, a hugely popular series on NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, which fictionalises the life of Masataka Taketsuru, the father of Japanese whisky, who travelled to Scotland in the early 1900s and brought home the secrets of whisky-making, along with a Scottish wife.
Domestic demand for Japanese whisky has skyrocketed ever since the programme began airing last autumn. Overseas, the popularity of Japanese whisky has grown in tandem with a surging international appetite for Japanese cuisine, says Mamoru Tsuchiya, a whisky writer.
While Japanese whisky has been highly regarded by connoisseurs for decades, the recent strength of demand has meant that prized brands are in short supply and can fetch huge premiums at whisky auctions and on the internet.
"The situation is abnormal now," says Takuya Yamane, general manager of marketing department II at Asahi Beer, owner of Nikka Whisky, which was founded by Taketsuru. In January, Nikka saw demand soar 300 per cent year-on-year for its Taketsuru brand blended malt whisky. Not surprisingly, the 3,000 bottles of Yamazaki 2013, which Suntory released exclusively in Europe, were quickly snapped up and have resurfaced at internet auctions at many times the original price.
So, what is it about Japanese whisky that makes it so special? In bestowing Yamazaki 2013 the top prize, Murray praised it in no uncertain terms, calling it "a single malt which no Scotch can at the moment get anywhere near".
While not everyone might agree with that view, what is clear is that Japanese whisky has come a long way from its roots in Scotland and that the result has been to many a whisky connoisseur's liking.
Although Japanese whisky is modelled on Scotch, it is often described as more balanced and complex. "Scotch is distinctive and powerful, while Japanese whisky is delicate and subtle, just like Japanese cuisine," Yamane says.
One reason for the difference is Japan's climate, with its four distinct seasons, and the qualities of the water, which give complexity and balance to Japanese whiskies, says Susumu Tada, general manager of the whisky strategy department at Beam Suntory.
But geographic differences and history have also meant that Japanese distillers have developed production methods distinct from those used in Scotland. For example, Japanese distillers do not use peat, which gives Scotch its characteristic smokinesss, Tsuchiya says.
Over the years, Japanese producers have also developed highly advanced blending and fermentation techniques that enable them to create complex and delicate flavours.
This is because, unlike in Scotland, where there are more than 100 distillers, each making their own distinct whisky, the industry in Japan is dominated by a few giants such as Beam Suntory and Nikka, which make hundreds of different whiskies in-house.
"Instead of having dozens of distilleries with each doing its own thing, in Japan you have a big plant like Yamazaki experimenting with yeast, cask and grain choices all under one roof," says Richard Thomas, owner and managing editor of The Whiskey Reviewer, a web magazine.
The Japanese obsession with quality has also played a role. "In Japan, even the big whisky makers are much more concerned with quality than quantity, and that is the defining characteristic," Thomas says. That focus on quality means Japanese whisky will remain in short supply for some time to come.
Although Japanese makers are ramping up production, it will take at least a decade for these new whiskies to mature, Tsuchiya explains. Until then, those lucky enough to have secured some of the most prized Japanese whiskies could enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza, he says.
Whisky can be a worthwhile investment
In the past several years, whisky has become a much sought-after investment as a recovery in global consumption has combined with a shortage of the most prized bottles available today to offer substantial returns. The prices of the 1,000 most collectable bottles of Scotch single malt rose by 219 per cent between 2008 and the end of November 2014, according to consultancy firm Rare Whisky 101.
One contributing factor to the rise in whisky values is the strong demand in Asia. At Bonhams' February Whisky Sale in Hong Kong this year, several bottles exceeded their top estimates, with Macallan Lalique 55-year-old going for HK$325,000, while Hibiki ceramic 35-year-old-old sold for HK$106,250.
However, as with any investment, whisky values can also fall and Rare Whisky 101 notes that the market is becoming increasingly polarised, with the worst performing 1,000 bottles decreasing in value by 10 per cent last year.
Neither is pedigree a guarantee of rising values. Even Macallan, the market leader, saw values weaken by 7.43 per cent in 2014, according to Rare Whisky 101.