Some 'Japanese whiskies' can no longer be called Japanese whisky, according to new rules


Some 'Japanese whiskies' can no longer be called Japanese whisky, according to new rules. Photo: Filepic

Like Japanese whisky? Well, it turns out that the Japanese whisky you think you may be drinking might not be Japanese at all.

The big news this week in the whisky world has been the new rules for the labelling of Japanese whiskies, which clearly define what is ‘Japanese whisky’.

Why is this big news? Well, because many ‘Japanese whisky’ brands in the market currently are actually blends of whiskies that are not made in Japan, but imported from Scotland, Ireland, USA, Canada, and other whisky-producing countries.

However, while the Scotch industry has strict regulations about what is and is not Scotch whisky, there were no such guidelines in Japan, which led to producers slapping the term ‘Japanese whisky’ on every bottle they produced.

Well, not anymore. Moving forward, if you see the words ‘Japanese whisky’ on the label, chances are it actually IS made in Japan., thanks to the new guidelines laid down by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association.

In a recent announcement, the association details the new standards, first by lamenting the fact that “in recent years there have been cases where brands that only use imported foreign whiskies being sold as ‘Japanese whisky’ and cases where brands that do not meet the qualification of ‘whisky’ under the Japanese liquor tax law” are “being sold as ‘whisky’ in other countries, sowing confusion among consumers”.

So, what IS a ‘Japanese whisky’ then? Well, under the new 'Standards for Labelling Japanese Whisky', a producer can only add the term ‘Japanese whisky’ to its label if it fulfils the following criteria:

  • Raw ingredients must be limited to malted grains, other cereal grains, and water extracted in Japan. Malted grains must always be used.
  • Saccharification, fermentation, and distillation must be carried out at a distillery in Japan, and the alcohol content at the time of distillation must be less than 95%.
  • The distilled product must be poured into wooden casks not exceeding a capacity of 700 liters and matured in Japan for a period of at least 3 years thereafter.
  • Bottling must take place only in Japan, with alcoholic strength of at least 40% as of such time. Other plain caramel coloring can be used.

Nikka has already added a disclaimer to their website entry for the Nikka Coffey Malt to say that it Nikka has already added a disclaimer to their website entry for the Nikka Coffey Malt to say that it "does not meet all the criteria of Japanese whisky". Photo: Filepic

A much needed move

With the growing popularity of Japanese whisky all over the world and the proliferation of ‘non-Japanese’ Japanese whiskies and blends, this new ruling can only be seen as a positive step for the industry.

Matthew Fergusson-Stewart, a former whisky brand ambassador and co-founder of whisky community Dram Full, a global community of whisky lovers, which also has a Malaysian chapter, hailed the new guidelines as a positive change that is 'better late than never'".

"While Japan has always produced some quality whisky, there have long been concerns over transparency. Many in the whisky community have been particularly concerned by the Japanese practice of buying Scotch whisky in bulk, blending it, and calling in Japanese whisky, ” said Fergusson-Stewart, who is currently the director of SPUN Spirits Pte Ltd in Singapore.

He does point out that this is more of a voluntary code of practice rather than legislation (unlike Scotch whisky, which have very strict laws about what constitutes ‘Scotch whisky’), but reckons that most Japanese distillers and bottlers will probably adhere to the guidelines.

On that note, one of the country's largest whisky producers, Nikka Whisky, has already responded by announcing on its website that it will adhere to the new labelling standards.

“Though our current labelling is not affected by the Labelling Standards, we have decided to provide further information for individual products on our website to clearly distinguish between products in Nikka Whisky’s line-up, which contains both whiskies that are defined as ‘Japanese whisky’ according to the Labelling Standards, and those that do not meet all the criteria, ” it says on the website.

A look through its products list reveals that a disclaimer has been added to the entries of popular expressions such as Nikka Whisky From The Barrel and Nikka Coffey Malt, stating “This product does not meet all the criteria of “Japanese whisky “ defined by the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association”.

On other products such as Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts, and also the Taketsuru Pure Malt and Coffey Grain Whisky, however, it is proudly declared that “This product meets all the criteria of “Japanese whisky “ defined by the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association”.

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