Suntory’s acclaimed Hibiki 17 Japanese Whisky is a sought-after trophy for spirits connoisseurs around the globe. But finding a bottle, even in Japan, is a tough challenge. It rarely sells for the list price of 12,000 yen and on Amazon it’s currently selling for 24,000 yen or more.
However, if you really knew your way around Japan’s liquor trade, you can find an old bottle of Hibiki 17 for just 21,000 yen or even less. What’s the catch? It may have been sitting around in someone’s house or in a bar.
I found a great bargain on Hibiki at a shop called Liquor Off, which is an eight-minute walk from Kōenji train station in Tokyo. Welcome to the world of secondhand liquor, where good booze goes to find a worthy owner!
In fact, Japan has a vibrant secondary liquor business—you can find liquor displays hidden away in pawn shops, secondhand shops, and small discount liquor stores. Near Gōtokuji station, I discovered a pawnshop with a very old bottle of Nikka Whisky. A clerk explained he couldn’t sell it to me, “because we don’t have our liquor license yet.” However, there was a sly workaround. He was willing to throw it in “as a bonus” if I purchased something else expensive.
One pawn shop in Kabukicho, Tokyo’s formerly super seedy red-light district, makes a great appeal to potential customers to sell them their leftover liquor. “Did you buy alcohol but never get a chance to drink it and are just leaving it there? Did you get booze but it’s so expensive that it seems like a shame to throw it away and keep it around? Are you going on the wagon and want to get rid of your hard liquor? Did your bar, club, cabaret go out of business and leave you with a lot of inventory… Come sell to us!”
The store also will buy empty bottles and the webpage for the shop displays nearly empty bins of Cacique Guaro, the sugarcane liquor from Costa Rica. Even I’m not sure I’d want to buy my secondhand drinks here, although the photo could be misleading.
Increasingly, the easiest place to find some quality merchandise is at the secondhand liquor store chain Liquor Off, run by the Hard Off Corporation, which is famous for its resale and recycling shops. The company’s gently used empire includes:
Book Off (used magazines, books, DVDs, and other media)
Hard Off (computer hardware, cameras, equipment)
Mode Off (secondhand clothing, jackets, accessories)
The English names of these various ventures do arouse some titters from foreigners but Liquor Off, according to the firm, is doing surprisingly well. They have five brick-and-mortar outlets, four in Tokyo and one in Nagoya. They will even send someone to your house to pick up your unwanted liquor—which is actually quite common here. In fact, as of Nov. 17, they were searching actively for a wine sommelier to help expand their business.
There are some uniquely Japanese reasons for the company’s success and why its business model works. The advertisement of the Kabuki-cho pawnshop touches upon it. Japan is a nation of gift-giving. People give gifts periodically not only to friends but to clients and people they feel they owe, which includes teachers, doctors, family members, and co-workers. The gifts may be an expression of gratitude or an attempt to gain goodwill. There are also seasonal gifts: the mid-summer gifts are called “o-chugen” and the end-of-year gifts are called “o-seibo.” Liquor, not just Japanese sake (nihonshu), is often given as such a gift. Alcohol is also often distributed at celebrations and special occasions, whether it be a wedding, or a successful launch of a company, or a fashion show. If you’re someone who rarely drinks, or only likes a certain type of liquor, these presents just end up taking space on your shelf.
Hard Off Corporation executive assistant, Eriko Sugihara, explains that this works to the advantage of Liquor Off. “We are aiming for people who want to get rid of their booze, often very good booze. Japanese people hate to throw away food or drinks, believing it’s very mottainai [indecently wasteful]. So, we appeal to people who want to get rid of their liquor in a sensible fashion.”
The company opened its first Liquor Off in the fashionable Kōenji district back in July of 2013. Their most recent store opened in Hachiōji on April 1 of this year. Japanese whisky and all whiskies sell briskly as do wine and quality sake. In the hot and humid Japanese summers, they are able to move a lot of beer. Anyone who has lived through a Japanese summer, can understand the appeal of Asahi Super Dry in August.
The sellers of the liquor tend to be elderly people who have collected spirits and wine over the years and have stopped drinking. Sometimes, the owner of the alcohol has passed away and the family sells it off.
“On the other hand, people buying secondhand liquor are from all walks of life. Of course, the people buying the high-end expensive wine and liquor tend to be in their forties and fifties,” says Sugihara.
One of the clerks working at the Kōenji store said, “Surprisingly, we don’t see that many foreigners coming to shop. Even though we have great selections of the Japanese whisky that have becomes famous and some great Japanese sake. Our prices are much better than discount stores but maybe the name throws them off. Do they think we’re selling ‘used’ booze?”
Sugihara assured me, “We don’t buy bottles that have been opened. We buy liquor in good shape and bottles that are good quality that people will want to have.”
The company is constantly trying to refine its image. It usually has a wine adviser in every store and is beginning to make better use of Twitter and other social networking sites. This year they began expanding their re-use shops outside of Japan and into the U.S. market as well, although they do not yet have plans to open a Liquor Off USA.
After visiting several stores, I was impressed by the selection and variety. In one shop, Nikka’s acclaimed Super Nikka, with its “luxuriant aroma, gentle hints of peat and scent of vanilla and chocolate” was in stock as well as other fine whiskies. There were also some great cognacs and high-end Champagne at excellent prices.
At the Kōenji store, Kaoru Kobayashi, a 43-year-old office worker, came to buy a good French red wine for a dinner he is planning with his girlfriend. “I am trying to learn to cook to impress her but if the food doesn’t turn out good, I hope a good wine will make her forget,” he said, laughing. He brought with him a guidebook to wine but ended up listening to the advice of the clerk and left happy with his purchase.
Now back to the Hibiki 17. In the Kōenji store, I found an old bottle of the whisky. It may be nearly 30 years old and was priced at 21,000 yen. A bargain to be sure with the added bonus of the old box—as the helpful clerk pointed out.
In fact, if the bottle turns out to be 30 years old, I’ll probably make 10 times what I make on this article by selling it to a collector. Or I might just drink it with some really close friends. There’s no better time than Suntory time at half the price.