Japanese whisky isn’t yet one hundred years old. The country set up its first proper whisky distillery in 1923. And from then until this year, there were zero codified rules about what exactly Japanese whisky was.
Compared to Scotch and bourbon, the regulations regarding Japanese whisky have been lax at best. There has long been ambiguity about what exactly makes Japanese whisky ‘Japanese’. The technique is not originally Japanese (though there have been some interesting innovations in Japan), the grain is typically (but not always) imported, the barrels used for maturation are not traditional Japanese style casks, and the wood, save for a small percentage, is either European or American white oak. So what is Japanese about Japanese whisky?
I remember once asking Ichiro Akuto from the excellent Chichibu Distillery what Japanese whisky was. His reply was succinct and wise: “Japanese whisky is whisky made by Japanese people.”
The country’s tipple has taken the world by storm, winning countless awards and fans. I’ve written a book about the history and appeal of Japanese whisky. At the time I was writing it, the industry was grappling with the increased calls for defining what exactly was Japanese about the whisky.
When you visit the country’s most famous distilleries, like Suntory’s Yamazaki or Nikka’s Yoichi, the amount of craft and expertise that goes into each bottle is profound. These are companies that have stuck it out in thick and thin. It wasn’t that long ago that whisky sales in Japan were at historic lows and whisky makers had to scale back production (note this lower production is one reason why there is less age-statement whisky from Suntory and Nikka—they had made less stuff in years past due to a declining demand). Yet, those companies continued making excellent stuff, and new makers like the aforementioned Chichibu Distillery helped usher in a new generation of Japanese whisky. Other promising whisky makers like Akkeshi (below) have followed suit.
But ambiguity swirled, along with the clear lack of rules, which has meant that others could try to pass off anything with a label that said “Japanese whisky” as the real deal. Over the years, I’ve had friends and kind strangers ask me my opinion of a particular “Japanese” whisky they’ve had, and I’ve often had to break it to them that what they were drinking probably wasn’t even made in Japan! Rather, it could be imported Scotch in a bottle slapped with a kanji calligraphy label.
This lack of clarity could not come at a worse time. Japanese whisky was popular than ever, but as Kotaku previously reported, shortages meant the country was running out of the real stuff.
Over the past few years, the number of new Japanese whisky brands—some of which are totally legit and making real, excellent stuff—has been overwhelming at times. Every time you’re in the liquor store in Japan, it feels like you see a brand you’ve never heard of before, that has no providence and no history, but somehow is Japanese whisky. Sometimes, this is simply imported foreign whisky that’s being passed off as local. Other times, it’s foreign-made whisky that has been imported into the country and aged in Japan. All of this has created confusion.
Enter the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association. This is not a governmental organization but a governmental-approved one. Therefore, it cannot make laws, but it can establish rules and practices for the industry. That is why today the group has issued its definitions of Japanese whisky.
As pointed out by my buddy drinks connoisseur Armando Cornejo, the definition of Japanese whisky encompasses:
The rules also cover misleading labeling. Therefore, unless the above stipulations are met, companies should not use “Japanese whisky” or even “Nihon whisky” or “Japan whisky.” For those, the group also prohibits the use of the following:
- Names of people that evoke Japan
- Names of Japanese cities, regions, and famous places as well as mountains and rivers
- The Japanese flag or a Japanese era name
- Any labeling that makes it seem like the whisky satisfies the Japanese whisky production requirements
A very real concern I have is that this organization—or any organization, for that matter—cannot prevent a vendor from slapping random Japanese calligraphy on a whisky bottle and trying to pass it off as Japanese whisky. Highly informed customers already know to stay away from suspect bottles, but casual consumers might not know, even with these new regulations. There is enough wiggle room for bad actors to continue to try to cash in. Enshrining this in Japanese law would certainly be a strong deterrent.
The label standards go into effect April 1, the start of the new business year in Japan. As mentioned previously, these are not laws. Moreover, not every company selling whisky in Japan is a member of this association.
Author of Empire of Booze Henry Jeffreys points out at Master of Malt that Nikka Whisky has issued a statement about the new standards. “The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association is a government-approved organization, not a government agency and therefore this is not a new law, but rather a regulation amongst the Association’s members,” the statement reads. “As members, Nikka Whisky and its parent company Asahi Breweries (Tokyo, Japan) will follow the new Labelling Standards as they fully support any initiatives that provide further clarity to their customers when they select their whisky.”
Continuing, Nikka states that its current label will not be impacted by these new standards, but they will be going one step further and noting on its official site which whiskies fall under the new Japanese whisky categorization. For example, the Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts, Coffey Grain, and Taketsuru Pure Malt, all adhere to the standards, while the excellent Nikka from the Barrel now has a disclaimer which reads, “This product does not meet all the criteria of ‘Japanese whisky’ defined by the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association.” As Master of Malt points out, however, no reason is given as to why.
“Nikka feels this will bring clearer guidance to whisky drinkers when they make a purchase decision. As Japanese whisky continues to rise in popularity and as consumers are increasingly looking to learn more about what they drink, this is an important step that will provide more transparency in a category that has been confusing for many.”
In the past few years, there has been increased transparency among Japan’s most respected whisky makers. They’ve started being more open about which blends contain imported whisky. In the past this might have been hidden, but now it’s become a selling point. If I know a whisky is a blend of Scotch and Japanese, it sets my expectations. I can make a more informed decision as a consumer. Heck, I might want to buy a particular whisky that is an international blend. However, I am not interested in fly-by-night whisky brands hoping to pull a fast one, rebottling imported whisky as Japanese.
These new regulations are a good step in codifying the most important element of all: Japanese whisky is made by Japanese people. But there is still more to be done.