Japanese whisky – what do the new rules mean for consumers?

Neil Ridley on how revised regulations for the production and bottling of Japanese whisky could lead to a new dawn for this highly regarded spirit

Words by Neil Ridley

Miyagikyo distillery – Japanese whisky
Nikka's Miyagikyo distillery. Nikka was the first company to endorse the new rules governing Japanese whisky production. Photo: Nikka Miyagikyo

Despite winning much-deserved international global acclaim among whisky lovers and bartenders alike, the world of Japanese whisky is far from a happy one. Murmurs concerning its authenticity have hounded the spirit over recent years, and the growing ranks of smaller, dubiously named bottlings, with little information other than ‘product of Japan’ on the label, have done little to quell an increasing distrust.

Until now, whisk(e)y of any origin, be it Scotch, Irish, Canadian or American, could effectively be transported to Japan in bulk, where it can be rebottled as ‘Japanese whisky’. As this process is not illegal, a number of smaller producers here in Europe and in Japan have exploited the flexibility of the regulations, the rising global popularity of the spirit and the scarcity of ‘genuinely Japanese distilled products’ (more on this later). Such whisky is then sold in bottles adorned with suitably faux-Japanese lettering and imagery on the labels, for grossly inflated prices, to consumers who are none the wiser.

Japanese whisky bottles
The phrase 'Product of Japan' on a bottle of whisky doesn't always mean that the liquid was made and distilled there…

This situation has come about partly due to the huge renewed interest in Japanese whisky. Although whisky has been made in Japan for more than 100 years, it came of age when critic Jim Murray named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best whisky in the world in his Whisky Bible 2015, causing prices across the category to rocket, and even leading to a shortfall in Japanese whisky, such was the demand. And this shortfall has forced some distilleries to look elsewhere to keep their stocks of whisky topped up.

However, all this is now set to change thanks to the introduction of a new set of regulations drawn up by Japanese producers in an attempt to safeguard the future reputation of the spirit. The regulations, issued by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA), have been agreed by all of its 83 members, including the major players, Suntory and Asahi Breweries. They are the first acknowledgment that the spirit is potentially facing an existential crisis, thanks to a lack of transparency over the provenance of the spirit being bottled, from the raw materials to the production processes and labelling.

So, what do the new regulations mean? Well, it’s first worth mentioning that, unlike Scotch whisky (arguably the most highly regulated and legally protected whisky in the world) the guidelines from the JSLMA, which come into effect on 1 April, are non-legally binding, despite the organisation being recognised by the Japanese authorities. They also only apply to its members, although they been widely agreed by the Japanese industry as a whole, as the first step to creating a definitive legislative framework.

The agreement puts some context into what can and cannot be deemed ‘genuine’ Japanese whisky. It states that the raw ingredients ‘must be limited to malted grains, other cereal grains and water extracted in Japan’ and that the fermentation and distillation ‘must be carried out at a distillery in Japan’. It goes on to state that ‘the whisky must also be matured in wooden casks in Japan for a period of at least three years’, which will be a familiar measure to those with an understanding of the rules governing Scotch.

Yamazaki liquid library – Japanese whisky
The whisky library at Yamazaki distillery, whose owner Suntory already complies with the new regulations

The regulations are likely to have an immediate impact as to what is available to consumers in UK and the rest of Europe, and how it is retailed and promoted. The Nikka Company (owner of Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries) has been the first to publicly endorse the regulations. As a result, it will now have to amend the way it promotes and lists several products, including the hugely popular Nikka From The Barrel, which, due to the fact that it is a blend including whisky from other origins (most likely Scotland) can no longer be labelled as Japanese whisky.

However, the portfolio of Suntory (the largest producer of Japanese whisky) that is currently available in the EU, including Yamazaki and Hakushu single malt, Hibiki and Toki blended whiskies and Chita grain whisky, will all be unaffected, as its production, origin and labelling all comply with the regulations, so can be legitimately called Japanese whisky. The knock-on effect is that this is likely to increase demand on the already finely allocated and in-demand stock.

Highball – Japanese whisky
Serving whisky over ice is incredibly popular in Japan

The regulations also give retailers a renewed opportunity to thoroughly explore the origins of the spirits they retail and take a greater level of custodianship into what they deem to be authentic or not.

Time will tell if the measures lead to the demise of the more unscrupulous bottlers, ensuring that what’s on the label is actually in the bottle too. In the meantime, if you’re in doubt about a bottle, and something doesn’t quite feel right, question anything that seems too good to be true. The label may look authentic, but as with everything important in life, it’s what’s actually on the inside that truly matters.