There’re few things more Japanese than rice whisky
Flavour isn't only thing that matters about whisky. If you purchased a bottle of “Japanese whisky”, you would, quite rightly so, expect the whisky to be “Made in Japan”.
But what does “Made in Japan” really mean? Is it sufficient that your whisky is simply “assembled” in Japan with parts sourced from Scotland? Take for instance the uproar in recent years when experts began pointing out that some of the most quintessential labels of “Japanese” whisky (including Nikka From The Barrel and Nikka Black) weren’t in fact distilled in Japan. Many of them were blends that included some component of Scotch whisky - many Nikka blends make use of distillate taken from Ben Nevis Distillery.
The quality of these “un-Japanese” whiskies is unquestionable. How else did they amass their army of devoted fans? Yet when people realise their Japanese whisky isn’t wholly “Made in Japan”, they feel unsettled or betrayed. It matters to them that their product is Japanese through and through. It is like buying a beautiful Monet painting only to find out that it was in fact a high-quality forgery. The quality of the painting immediately gets thrown out of the window.
People expect a Scotch to be mashed and distilled in Scotland, and a Japanese whisky to be mashed and distilled in Japan. These are the requirements under the Scotch Whisky Regulations and the new JSLMA rules that come into full effect in 2024.
Are the ingredients of your Japanese whisky truly Japanese?
But what about grain origin? Should a “Made in Japan” whisky be made from Japan-grown ingredients?
At least in Scotland, these rules of origin do not go so far. Many might assume that a Scotch is made with 100% Scotland-grown barley and vice versa for Japanese whisky. But that is far from the case in this globalised economy we live in. Mark Reynier - founder of the modern Bruichladdich and recently Waterford Distillery - has lamented about this:
“[Scotch] whisky fans have been spoon-fed an inculcation of propaganda that it’s all about how we distil it and the wood – and don’t worry about barley, because brands don’t want to have to tell you most of it comes from Ukraine.”
In Japan, malt whisky makers have little choice but to import barley from places like the UK. Japan does not natively grow a significant amount of barley, so most whisky makers (including Chichibu and Shizuoka) rely heavily on imported barley.
So this begs the question: exactly how Japanese are the ingredients in your Japanese whisky?
There’s nothing more Japanese than rice whisky
Scotch and Irish whiskey are made with their native grain: barley. Bourbon whiskey comes from corn, which is native to the Americas. Why can’t Japanese people make their whisky with their primary staple grain: rice?
Rice has been cultivated in Japan since around 400 BC. It is so integral in Japanese society that just a surface observation of Japanese culture would show that values from ancient Japanese rice-cultivating communities continue to shape contemporary Japanese consciousness.
For instance, the notion of harmony (wa/和) asks for conformity and the preservation of harmony in a community over an individual’s personal interests. Historically, this was an extremely important value in an agrarian community that cultivates rice. Families had to pool their labour and depend heavily on each other. This requires a focus on group interests, and the avoidance of friction between neighbours for generations.
Rice whisky has a fairly short history. For hundreds of years, the Japanese have been distilling shochu, a clear and typically unaged spirit made from sweet potatoes, barley or rice. In the 1980s, shochu markers began aging shochu in oak barrels. As a result, well-aged rice shochu above 40% ABV meets the definition of whisky in most countries outside Europe, such as the United States, Canada and Australia.*
So how is rice whisky made?
The process of making rice whisky mirrors that of sake and rice shochu.
- POLISHING THE RICE
The first step is to polish the rice grains to remove unwanted materials such as the outer bran, fats and proteins. It removes bitterness from the rice and allows us to get directly at the sweet starches.
One key metric here is the “rice-polishing ratio” (seimaibuai/精米歩合) - the proportion of unpolished to polished rice. Japanese table rice used for meals has a polishing ratio of about 90 per cent (i.e. 10% of the rice has been polished off). Sake has a lower polishing ratio that can vary from 70% down to as low as 50%. The higher the grade of sake, the lower the polishing ratio, and thus the more expensive.
Next, it is time to convert the starches into sugar. Typically when we produce whisky, barley and other grains are “malted”, or partially germinated, to convert starches in the grains into sugars. Rice cannot be “malted” in this manner, so a special mould called kōji (麹) is used.
The rice is prepared by washing and steaming, turning the starches in the raw grains soft and sticky. Kōji is then incorporated into the steamed rice. Mould spores are sprinkled over the rice in a temperature-controlled room, where the temperature is about 32°C. The rice-koji mixture is kneaded and wrapped in cloth, and left for about 2 days.
During this time, enzymes from the kōji mould break down the starch in the steamed rice, producing sugars (which will later be converted to alcohol). Apart from sugars, the enzymes also introduce a profound complexity to the mixture - one of the compounds produced is glutamate, which adds an umami or savoury note to the mixture.
- ALCOHOL FERMENTATION
After the kōji works its magic for over 2 days, the mixture becomes rich in sugars. It is now time for alcohol fermentation. Now, you may recall that malt whisky fermentation takes anywhere between 48 hours to over 100 hours. In this case, fermentation takes up to two weeks.
Yeast is added to the mixture for the first phase of fermentation - this is known as the first batch (or first moromi /もろみ). After about a week of alcohol fermentation, more rice is added to create a larger batch - the second moromi, and the mix is allowed to ferment for a second week.
After fermentation, the mixture sits at about 17-18% ABV.
This is distilled in a pot still at low pressure for over a few weeks. The resulting spirit comes up to about 45% ABV. Congratulations! You have made shochu that can be bottled immediately for consumption.
… you want to make whisky, in which case the shochu must undergo necessary aging in wooden casks for a period of time.
After a duration of aging, if the matured shochu remains above 40% ABV, it can be bottled and sold as whisky in most countries.
Rice is finding its place in whisky
Rice is beginning to find its place amongst titans of the global whisky industry - and this isn’t only happening in Asia.
It’s nothing new to even Americana brands like Jim Beam and Buffalo Trace. Jim Beam’s Signature Craft Brown Rice Bourbon is an 11-year-old bourbon that uses brown rice as one of its grains. According to Master Distiller Fred Noe, the rice imparts a cast of toasty, nutty, starchy flavours that remind him of sweet potato.
Buffalo Trace also has an experimental series called “Made With Rice”- a 9-year-old bourbon that includes rice in its ingredient list. Apparently, this reduces the heaviness of the bourbon and makes for a very delicate whiskey.
In Asia, rice whiskies are truly rallying. Just last year, whisky giant Diageo has released the Epitome Reserve Rare Grain Whisky in India. This was made entirely from rice grown in the northern frontiers of Punjab.
Suntory has already joined in with its Essence of Suntory Rice Whisky which is primarily made from rice with traces of malt.
The malt vs rice whisky dilemma
But probably the most exciting story to follow would be the rise of craft Japanese shochu distilleries. Throughout most of shochu’s long history, it had largely flown under the radar, never held with the same esteem as whisky. But over the last decade, they have seen the meteoric international success of Japanese malt whisky and they desperately want to catch the Japanese whisky wave.
Many ex-shochu distilleries have pivoted to making rice whisky. They include Ohishi Distillery and Fukano Distillery, both of whom are family businesses for over 5 generations and who originally made sake and shochu.
And like all good stories, our protagonists are faced with a complication. The JSLMA, which is led by Japanese malt whisky producers, does not wish to let rice whisky into the exclusive club.
The JSLMA has been criticised for leaving rice whisky producers out in the cold. According to their labelling-standards, rice whisky producers are not permitted to label their bottles as “Japanese whisky”.
These rules do not have the force of law and are self-imposed standards in the Japanese whisky industry. However, given the influence wield by JSLMA members who are liquor giants - the likes of Suntory and Nikka - it seems likely that these rules will eventually become codified as law.
You could argue that the JSLMA rules are in line with traditional whisky standards set by Scotch whisky rules or the EU. Yet, you could equally argue that the Japanese shouldn’t be beholden to their Scottish predecessors. Look at the worldwide history of whisky distillation and we realise whisky is always made based on the local crops available. Scotch came from barley, bourbon from corn.
“Guess what they don’t grow in Japan. Barley,” says Nicholas Pollacchi, the co-owner of Shibui Whisky - a Japanese rice whisky producer. “Guess what they grow in Asia, and I hate to break the news, the number 1 crop: rice.”
So why can’t Japanese whisky be made from the quintessentially Japanese grain?
To quote one well-known investigative journalist: “when in doubt, follow the money”. Japanese malt whisky producers have a vested interest in ring-fencing their domain and excluding rice whisky makers. It seems pretty clear that they have no interest in supporting rice whisky makers, and would lobby for such rules to protect their business.
So, just like the ancient farmers who braved seemingly Sisyphean obstacles to cultivate rice by hand, there is a long road ahead for Japanese rice whisky. We already know that the quality of rice whisky is incontrovertible. Now, it is upon them to cultivate loyalty for their product.
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