Whisky has been made in Japan for almost 100 years, but until recently it has been relatively unknown. The huge growth outside of Japan in the past few years has started to show cracks in the way that it is regulated and led to calls from both in and outside of the Japanese whisky community to have stricter rules on its production and labelling. Today, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association has announced the steps that it is taking to tighten up what producers mean by the term Japanese whisky.
The rise in popularity of Japanese whisky over the past two decades has led to more and more of the spirit being exported around the world. With that has come an awareness that the Japanese regulations and traditions of whisky making didn’t necessarily line up with that of other countries. This is especially true when it comes to what was allowed to be included when creating a whisky.
The Japanese laws that govern whisky were laid down in the 1950s and haven’t changed much since. They are governed by the tax department and are mostly concerned with collecting the correct duties more than governing how whisky is made. Along with that, the tradition of Japanese whisky blending focused on the resulting blend and its flavour rather than the origin components.
The result has been that even if a bottle of whisky says ‘Product of Japan’ on the label, it isn’t possible to say whether every whisky in the vatting that made up the contents of the bottle was made in Japan. In short, a product that claimed to be Japanese whisky could well be made up partly or even entirely of spirit distilled and matured outside of the country.
While many producers are open about the source of their spirit, many are not. There have been ongoing discussions for years about how to update the regulations, but Japanese bureaucracy moves slowly, and nothing official has appeared yet from the tax office. However, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association is now issuing guidelines for its members to try and increase transparency.
The New Rules
As of 1 April 2021, members of the JSLMA will start to move towards a new standard for labelling their whiskies. Along with the labelling is a commitment not to allude to being Japanese whisky through naming, packaging and advertising. They’ve published full details in English on the JSLMA website. The deadline to follow the new rules is 31 March 2024.
In order for a spirit to be called Japanese whisky it must adhere to the following rules:
Raw ingredients: Malted grain must always be used, but other cereal grains can also be included.
Water: Water used in production must be extracted in Japan.
Production location: Saccharification, fermentation and distillation must be carried out at a distillery in Japan.
Distillation: Must be distilled to less than 95% ABV.
Ageing: Spirit must be aged in Japan in wooden casks of no more than 700 litres for a minimum of three years.
Packaging: Bottling must take place in Japan.
Strength: Bottled spirit must be at least 40% ABV.
Colouring: Plain caramel colouring (E150) can be used.
What does this mean?
While this only affects the members of the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association, it does cover most of the major producers in Japan.
Each producer will be working to a different timeline and will have different ways of handling the new rules. Some will change the composition of their whiskies meet the new rules, others will simply label their spirit as ‘Whisky’ without the new category as well as potentially changing product names and packaging. Some whiskies may even be discontinued.
In the end, the coming few years will lead to greater transparency from the major Japanese whisky producers.
What is The Whisky Exchange doing?
We very much support these changes, and will be updating our website over the coming weeks, months and years to classify all Japanese whisky using these definitions, erring on the side of ‘not Japanese Whisky’ when we are unable to find out.
We are renaming our Japanese whisky category ‘Whisky from Japan’ and will divide all of those whiskies into Japanese Whisky and Whisky – the latter are whiskies from Japan that for one reason or another do not meet the requirements laid down by the JSLMA to be called Japanese Whisky.
This is only a start, and as we continue to develop our website, we will make sure to keep the distinction between these new categories clear.
Update: We decided in the end to go a step stronger than the original plan. We created a new category of World Blended Whisky and moved into it all of the whiskies from Japan that do not meet the new regulations. The category also contains other world blends, as it is a growing style of whisky, and we hope that the producers will add more transparency and clarification to their labelling as to what they are.
So all the Japanese importers of Scotch that brand their products as “Japanese whisky” have three years to decide to either 1) actually make their whisky in Japan, or 2) just tweak the packaging and wording. But just as egregious is the packaging with beautiful Japanese calligraphy (kanji) that evoke a strong implication of a Japanese product. Here are the new requirements by Mar 2024. Whiskies sold in Japan or overseas that do not meet the new requirements must not use:
(i) Names of people that evoke Japan
(ii) Names of Japanese cities, regions, famous places, mountains and rivers (iii) The Japanese flag or a Japanese era name
(iv) Any other labeling that makes it likely that the product being labeled is
mistaken for a product that satisfies the production method quality
requirements set forth in Article 5.
There are two kinds of Japanese whisky packaging in my experience:
1) The classy high-end approach with Japanese calligraphy of Suntory (Yamazaki, Hakushu, Chita) and Nikka (Yoichi, Miyagikyo, Taketsuru), and their imitators (Hatozaki, Togouchi, Kurayoshi, Totori, Yamazakura, Kaiyo, etc)
2) The really cliched Japanese images of samurai warriors, views of Mt Fuji with cranes, etc (like Matsui Shuzo’s The Matsui and Shinobu Distilleries’ The Shin)
When people ask me which Japanese whiskies are reliably made in Japan, the only ones I feel comfortable recommending are 1) Suntory (Yamazaki, Hakushu, Chita), 2) Nikka (Yoichi, Miyagikyo, Taketsuru), 3) Chichibu, and maybe Mars Shinshu Komagatake.
There are some sake/shochu brewers jumping on the bandwagon recently, or those that dabble when the market picks up like White Oak’s Akashi, but if I’m going to pay premium prices I want to know its a whisky distilled and aged in Japan by a company dedicated to whisky as their main business, not a sideline.
Quite the change! But a good move towards transparency.
is mean some are whisky or labels will not extend on future
When you see Komagatake and Tsunuki, which means they are Single Malts from Mars Whisky.
[…] mentioned by a Kirin rep during The Whisky Exchange’s 2020 Whisky Show. Billy Abbot has written a great article breaking down the new rules. With the deadline to follow the rules being March 31, 2024, we won’t […]
[…] there has been very little regulation over what can and can’t be called Japanese whisky (See Billy’s excellent article on the Whisky Exchange blog for more details) but all that is about to change. The new labelling standards are set to come into […]