We Studied Whisky Regulations from Every Major Country. We Learnt Something Interesting.
Every bottle of Glenfiddich is definitely mashed, distilled and fully matured in Scotland. There is no doubt about that. But what about that dram of Nikka whisky you’re drinking? Chances are, it was produced in Scotland, too.
A number of whiskies released by Japanese producers aren’t actually made in Japan - from where the barley is harvested, to the place where it was fermented, distilled and matured. Many seemingly “Japanese whiskies” were actually barrels imported into Japan from Canada, US, Scotland, Ireland, and subsequently bottled and sold by retailers as “Japanese whisky”.
This would likely be the case until new rules from the Japanese Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA) become fully in force in April 2024 (note: these rules are only applicable to association members, and do not have the force of law). We take a closer look at these new Japanese rules in this write-up.
What you need to know about whisky regulations
This embarrassing Japanese situation is caused by an absence of regulation in Japan. While Scotland has strict rules on what is and is not Scotch whisky, no rules existed in Japan. This allowed less honest “Japanese whisky” producers to use misleading labels and indications (e.g. a Japanese flag) to discombobulate drinkers into thinking that the contents were actually made in Japan. Some producers straight up slap the term “Japanese whisky” on non-Japan-produced whisky.
This is why whisky regulations matter.
Whisky regulations directly govern the whisky-making process and whisky-labelling rules. They go as far as to define what’s a Scotch, what’s an Irish whiskey, ingredients in a “single malt” or “bourbon”, permitted cask types, and other necessary steps in production.
A neat summary of the essential rules on whisky-production across all major countries is set out at the end of the article (please see Table A below). The following sections discuss a couple of interesting things we learnt from these regulations.
Worldwide regulation is far from equal
(Image Source: Alkypal.com.au)
The first point to note is that not every major whisky-producing country has complete whisky regulations.
Scotland, Ireland and America have great traditions of whisky-making, and therefore have very comprehensive legally-enforced rules governing how Scotch, Irish whiskey and styles of American whiskey (e.g. bourbon) are made and labelled. There’s no surprise that such is needed to protect the global reputation of whiskies from these countries.
Australia, Canada and Taiwan also have legally-enforced rules on whisky-making. Notably, all of them them require cereal grains (which include barley) to be used, and impose a minimum number of years for maturation.
Japan and New Zealand do not have legally-binding rules, but have recently sought to catch up with their own industry-enforced standards that are somewhat similar to Scotch rules.
Finally, while India is one of the largest producers of whisky, there is unfortunately an absence of whisky-making regulation in India.
The Scots have been pretty conservative
Outside of Scotland, much of the world’s whisky producers follow Scotch-making traditions and nomenclature. For instance, the term “single malt” was reportedly first used by the Scots to denote whisky made from 100% malted barley, then distilled in a traditional copper pot still. But today, we also see single malts being produced (using similar Scottish techniques) by the Japanese, Taiwanese, Australians and New Zealanders.
Scotch whisky represents much of Scotland’s heritage and tradition. Measures are therefore taken by the Scotch industry and government to preserve the signature flavour profile of Scotch whisky.
Rules governing the production of Scotch whisky are notoriously strict. For instance, not all types of casks can be used for maturing Scotch. Only oak wood can be used. Scotch-makers also cannot use casks that previously held alcohols made from stone fruits (such as peaches, cherries or apricots), or alcohols that have been flavoured or sweetened.
Award-winning Scotch independent bottler, Compass Box, had a run-in with the Scotch Whisky Association when it attempted to sell its Spice Tree expression which was matured with French oak inner staves inserted into the barrel to add spice and chocolatey notes.
Despite the immense popularity of this expression, the Association threatened legal action against Compass Box unless it ceases production of the Spice Tree. The Association claimed that the use of oak inner staves was contrary to Scotch-making tradition. Read all about Compass Box’s shenanigans with the Scotch Whisky Association here.
On the other hand, the Irish also have a long history with whiskey, but are much more progressive. For instance, almost any cask style is permitted. Read more about the contrasting attitudes between the Irish and Scots in our write-up here.
Many Indian “whisky” are actually just rum
India has an absence of whisky-making regulations. This led to the rather surprising situation that most spirits labelled as “whiskies” in India, are not made from barley or other cereal grains. In India, sugarcane is readily available. Most Indian “whisky” is actually made from extracting molasses from sugar cane, then fermenting the molasses.
In any case, beginning in the early 2000s, reputable Indian spirit makers began focusing on international whisky-making standards (mostly based on Scotch tradition) and using malted barley. This led to the creation of Indian single malts- the likes of Amrut and Rampur- that were discovered and critically-acclaimed by well-known western connoisseurs.
We actually recently tried a Rampur single malt and really enjoyed it. Check out our review here.
The unique climates of the regions influence the rules
While Scotch whisky rules require maturation for a minimum of 3 years, the rules in Taiwan, America (when pertaining to "straight whiskey"), Australia and New Zealand only prescribe a minimum of 2 years.
This reflects how differences in climate significantly affect whisky maturation around the world. Taiwan, America, Australia and New Zealand are set in subtropical regions of the world, where people experience hot summers and cold winters. These temperature swings greatly quicken the whisky maturation process due to the accelerated interaction between spirit, cask and air.
Therefore, subtropical whiskies only need to be aged for a much shorter duration.
At Kavalan Distillery in Taiwan, daytime temperatures can run as high as 42 degree celsius, while the cool, windy nights can drop as low as 26 degree Celsius. For comparison, Kavalan loses 12% of its whisky’s volume in its annual angel’s share, while Scottish distilleries typically lose about 2% in annual angel’s share. A useful rule of thumb is to assume that a 4 – 6 year old Kavalan is aged to the same extent as a 15 – 25 year old Scotch. For more about whisky-making in the Taiwanese climate, read all about Kavalan Distillery here.
Interestingly, subtropical whiskies tend to portray themselves as smoother and more flavourful at a younger age. On the flip-side, longer aging carries the risk of over-oaking the whisky, resulting in overly woody and pungent flavour in the resulting whisky.
Native crop varieties of the region influence the rules
Finally, the rules of various countries focus on the use of different grains to produce whisky.
This makes sense. Long before a globalised transport system enabled the purchase of ingredients from abroad, spirit distillers could only use raw ingredients that grew close to their distilleries. Barley is amenable to the climates of Scotland and Ireland, and this let to malt whisky. Corn and rye grew better in the Americas, leading to bourbon and rye. Rice is native to Japan, China and Taiwan, leading to rice wines or shōchū.
This is why Scotch and Irish whiskey rules seem to be fixated with barley. Notably, malted barley must always be an ingredient for any kind of whisk(e)y from Scotland or Ireland. “Malt whisk(e)y” must be made from 100% malted barley. “Grain whisk(e)y” mainly contains maize or wheat, but must also contain at least a small component of malted barley. Irish “pot still whiskey” must contain at least 30% malted barley and 30% unmalted barley.
On the other hand, American whiskey rules are not fixated with barley. Instead, the focus is on other crops that native to the Americas. For instance, “bourbon”, “rye”, “wheat whiskey” or “rye malt whiskey” must be made from at least 51% corn, rye, wheat, or malted rye, respectively.
Australian and New Zealand whisky rules are also not fixated with barley. “Malt whisky” can be made from any malted cereal grains, such as rye, oats or corn. It is possible to have Australian or New Zealand “Malt Rye Whisky”.
What about “rice whisky”?
If Americans could make corn-based bourbon whiskey, can Asian “rice whisky” be accepted as whisky? We have explored this question in our write-up on “What is Whisky?”.
Legally speaking, there is some controversy. Whiskies made from rice can legally be labelled “whisky” in many countries including Taiwan, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand because rice is technically a cereal grain. However, Scotch, Irish and the new Japanese rules outlaw “rice whisky” because rice grains cannot undergo the malting process.
The new JSLMA rules have been criticised for leaving rice whisky-producers in the lurch. This is in spite of the popularity of rice whisky (also known as koji whisky) which has been rallying after Japanese sake and shōchū distilleries pivoted to making rice whisky. Japan-grown brands such as Kukano, Kikori and Ohishi have seen great commercial success with American consumers.
It is a heated debate. The quality of the spirit is inarguable. On the other hand, Japanese malt whisky purists insist that “rice whisky” could more clearly be labelled as “barrel-aged shōchū”.
The debate might be resolved when Japanese lawmakers finally decide whether to implement all of the JSLMA whisky standards as legally-binding rules. For now, it appears that the debate is being won by Japanese whisky purists.
If you enjoyed this article on how whisky around the world is made, you’ll probably like these too:
- Basics: What is whisky? How does it differ from beer, brandy or rum?
- Basics of American Whiskey and Bourbon
- News Release: Not all Japanese whiskies come from Japan. A new labelling rule means you'll now know if your favourite Japanese whisky really is Japanese.
- News Release: How does Irish Whiskey intend to compete with Scotch? Hint: Their New Regulations
- Spotlight on Compass Box Whisky: The Rockstar, Anti-Establishment Whisky Makers
- Spotlight on Kavalan Distillery: The Distillery That Put Taiwan On The World Map
Table A - Summary of Whisky Regulations Around the World
You may wish to refer to the the following whisky regulations around the world for a closer reading:
- Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 (UK Act of Parliament)
- Scotch Whisky Technical File
- Irish Whiskey Act 1980 (Republic of Ireland Act of Parliament)
- Irish Whiskey Technical File
- Japan Spirits and Liquers Makers Association Standards for Labelling Japanese Whisky
- Taiwan Enforcement Rules of the Tobacco and Alcohol Administration Act (Taiwan Legislation)
- US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (US Federal Regulations)
- Food and Drug Regulations (Canadian Subsidiary Legislation)
- Australian Distillers Association Guidance Summary on Legal Definitions of Whisky
- Excise Act 1901 (Australian Commonwealth Act)
- Customs Act 1901 (Australian Commonwealth Act)
- Distilled Spirits Aotearoa - New Zealand Whisky Guidelines and Definitions
Filling a bookshelf? We picked these for you.