Not all Japanese whiskies come from Japan. A new labelling rule means you'll now know if your favourite Japanese whisky really is Japanese.
Japanese whiskies have been amongst the biggest themes in whiskyland over the last couple of years. Demand skyrocketed to the point that even giants like Suntory and Nikka have had to put a halt to their age-statement expressions to recuperate aged whisky reserves.
Yet, dive deep enough into the rabbit hole that is Japanese whiskies and you’d quickly realized a dirty secret – a bottle that says Japanese whisky doesn’t really have to be Japanese whisky.
(Image Source: Gear Patrol)
You’re telling me I just busted $500 on a bottle of Japanese whisky that isn’t even what the label says it is?
In short, sometimes yes. Hold the blood pressure pills, we’ll explain.
Japanese whisky regulations have been VERY loose with how merchants use and advertise the whiskies they sell. It’s so loose, the regulations may as well be suggestions.
Many whiskies you can find in Japan aren’t completely from Japan, from the barley used, to where it’s malted, fermented and distilled or who does the actual whisky-making. The result is many self-titled Japanese whiskies that are actually whiskies imported into Japan from distilleries across Canada, US, Scotland, you name it, and subsequently sold by retailers as Japanese whisky.
Of course, that is starting to be a real problem for an increasingly important cultural icon of Japan. Obviously we know that provenance matters. Even if a whisky tastes great, you’re not odd for feeling a victim of misrepresentation if the whisky isn’t even from Japan or made at a Japanese distillery for that matter. Literally the only thing Japanese about it is the word “Japanese” on the label.
How did this happen?!
There are reasons for why this was never addressed of course. The three biggest reasons are that:
- Japan has very little barley grown locally
- Japan doesn’t have many grain whiskies which are fairly important in blends to tamper the weightiness from barley malt, with the grain whisky’s lighter profile forming the bulk of most blends.
- The focus for Japanese whisky-making has always been about the blending and not the making of the whisky itself.
Given that the whisky landscape in Japan is dominated by a handful of giants owning several distilleries, almost all their barley is imported and also their primary goal is to make smooth yet complex whiskies. Hence for a long time, who makes it and where it comes from was never really a concern.
To give you an example, Nikka’s highly popular Whisky From The Barrel is mostly made of whisky from Ben Nevis Distillery in Scotland, which they own and blend with whisky from their other distilleries Yoichi and Miyagikyo located in Japan.
How do I know what is authentic Japanese whisky then?
But this is changing, and this is why it’s important, for Japanese whiskies to really appreciate in value and be taken seriously, even by new drinkers, it’s important that it is accurately represented.
(Image Source: Japan Spirits and Liquers Makers Association (JSLMA))
Under the new rules by JSLMA, any new bottle to hit the market on and after 1 April 2021, can only don the words “Japanese” whisky if it complies with the rule changes. For whiskies already in production, they have until 31 March 2024 to comply.
The key points you’d be interested to know are:
- Whiskies that do not comply cannot use the title “Japanese” whisky and also cannot imply (eg. Using symbols such as the Japanese flag) that it is Japanese whisky.
- Imported barley can still be used. Caramel colouring can still be added.
- The actual whisky-making must be done at a distillery in Japan, including a minimum of 3 years of aging in Japan, and finally the bottling of the whisky must also be in Japan.
What this tells us is also that we can expect genuine Japanese whiskies to climb in value as the market will begin to see non-compliant whiskies pulled from the market and more demand is channeled to authentic Japanese whiskies. [Remember to use this to justify your spending, it’s an investment not waste]
What you’ll want to take note of when you go Japanese whisky shopping once the rules take effect is:
- Make sure it is produced after 1 April 2021 for new bottles, if you’re looking for authentic versions of your daily sippers, you’ll have to wait for 31 March 2024.
- No colouring added.
To the most important part, who is safe and who is guilty!
Nikka was the first to admit their non-compliance, yet it isn’t a surprise given that it is publicly known that they own Ben Nevis distillery. Nikka has in response to the new rules committed to more transparent disclosures. It is most likely they will keep these popular expressions, however, upon effect of the new rules, they will no longer bear the label “Japanese” whisky.
The popular Whisky From The Barrel and Nikka Days do not comply with regulations.
You’ll be glad to know all the times you felt broke spending on Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu, was not in vain. Suntory has confirm that Yamazaki, Hibiki, Hakushu and the Toki are compliant. The latest Suntory AO World Blend Whisky isn’t however.
Chichibu distillery is also a bit of a mixed bag. It’s highly sought after Chichibu single malt whiskies are safe, but those bottled under the label Ichiro’s Malt World Blend and Malt & Grain are not.
In truth, where it comes from shouldn’t interfere with a whisky actually tasting good. But of course, if we’re forking out big dollars, we want to know what we’re getting. And that is ultimately what the new rules are all about.
That said, don’t let the fact that Nikka’s Whisky From The Barrel or Ichiro’s Malt & Grain isn’t completely made from whisky made in Japan stop you from enjoying them. They are great whiskies and there is great value to the mastery of blending that goes into their production. It certainly helps that they are still much more affordable than most Japanese whiskies as well.
(Image Source: Suntory)
If you do however, want something that is authentically Japanese and affordable, might we suggest Suntory’s Toki. It’s great value for money, easy to get your hands on, and highly versatile drunk neat or as a cocktail.
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