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The New Japanese Whisky Rules

March 01, 2021

Story: Jake Emen

photo: Lizzie Munro

Will recent regulations, including a mandate that Japanese whisky must be made entirely in Japan, upend the category?

Since its modern inception a century ago, when chemist Masataka Taketsuru returned from Scotland with the knowledge of its native spirit, “Japanese whisky” has never had a legally regulated definition. “As long as there was a drop of malt, or it touched Japan, and it had aged in a barrel … you could label it as ‘Japanese whisky’ and there was no one who could stop you,” says Eli Raffeld, co-founder of High Road Spirits, which imports a number of independent Japanese distilleries, including Chichibu, Mars and Akkeshi.

After more than a decade of regulatory standstill, on February 12, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA) released its official Standards for Labeling Japanese Whisky, which, in the convoluted world of spirits production and marketing, is a milestone.

The new labeling standards, effective April 1, close off existing loopholes by specifying what Japanese whisky can be made from—all must contain malted grains, but are allowed to contain other cereal grains as well—and requiring all production, from fermentation to bottling, to be done in Japan. Existing products have three years to come up to code, and while the JSLMA is a trade organization, the new regulations are expected to be passed into Japanese law and recognized by the United States and the European Union.

Browse a well-stocked liquor store, and dozens of brands either on the fringe or entirely in conflict with the new standards might be present: Sensei, Fujisan, Shinju, Fuyu and Isawa, to name a few.

“We believe that the labeling standards will provide consumers with further clarity so that they can reasonably decide which products to buy,” says Emiko Kaji, international business development manager of Nikka Whisky. Going forward, the use of kanji characters, the Japanese flag, and other names and images evocative of Japan will be disallowed from whisky that doesn’t meet the specifications, a measure meant to weed out disingenuous brands capitalizing on Japanese identity. “The industry is making sure they knock out a few of the bad apples who basically said, ‘We’re not going to tell you what’s in the bottle, we’re just going to put some Japanese iconography on it, and we’re going to hope that nobody asks too many questions,’” says Nicholas Pollacchi, co-owner of Shibui Whisky.

Neither Suntory (another Japanese whisky giant) nor Nikka will have to change any labels in the U.S., having stayed ahead of the curve by already signifying which products aren’t exclusively Japanese whisky. For instance, Suntory Ao, made with components from Japan, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the U.S. is touted as a “world blended whisky”. Alternately, Nikka From the Barrel is labeled as a “product of Japan” and features stock from the company’s sister distillery, Ben Nevis in Scotland, while Nikka Days is a “blended whisky,” including imported grain whisky. Among other brands, Mars Iwai 45, which also incorporates imported grain whisky, is labeled simply “whisky.” Chichibu has long distinguished its “blended whisky” or “world blended whisky” as such; Shibui, a newer company, releases its labels under “world whisky blend.”

The fraught question of rice whisky remains. Rice, a cereal grain, is allowed by the standards, but the use of koji, a mold strain traditionally used to saccharify rice, is not barred or mentioned at all. Shibui, Ohishi, Fukano and Kikori all make rice whiskies, but it’s not fully understood how these products, which some consider a subcategory and others argue are the de facto original Japanese whisky, will fit into the new framework. “To me, you couldn’t pick something that feels more exciting to look at in Japanese whisky than that,” says Pollacchi of rice-based whisky. “That really is what Japanese whisky would have or should have been, had the effect of [Masataka Taketsuru’s] trip to Scotland not completely shifted the ways of an entire country.”

While there may still be some unknowns, the removal of misleadingly labeled brands and overnight upstarts—who piggyback on successful Japanese whiskies and profit from the confusion of consumers—is a win-win for legitimate producers, as well as drinkers seeking authenticity. “Why do I need to become some kind of investigative journalist chasing a money trail to the Bahamas to find out where this whisky is made?” says Pollacchi. The hope is, in the century ahead, the detective work will be unnecessary, and what’s inside a Japanese whisky bottle will reflect exactly what it claims to be.

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Jake Emen is a freelance travel, food, and drinks journalist. He's been published in outlets including AFAR, Barron's, Bourbon+, Departures, Food & Wine, GQ, Imbibe, Maxim, Roads & Kingdoms, USA Today, Vice, Whisky Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and a wide range of others. He's a longtime spirits judge, and has visited more than 100 distilleries across 25 countries and six continents. Follow his latest adventures @ManTalkFood