Japanese Whisky Regulations are Changing. What Does That Mean for Your Next Pour? | Wine Enthusiast
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Japanese Whisky Regulations are Changing. What Does That Mean for Your Next Pour?

Is the liquid in that bottle really Japanese whisky? Soon, it will be easier to tell.

Japan’s spirits producers have banded together to define what exactly constitutes Japanese whisky. The initiative follows outcry that rules have been way too flexible, permitting whisky distilled outside of Japan and liquor that isn’t whisky, like shochu, to be labeled as Japanese whisky.

It’s an important consideration as demand for Japanese whisky has exploded over the past decade. In 2020, whiskey imports from Japan amounted to $67 million in 2020, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And, from 2015 to 2020, whiskey imports from Japan more than tripled, increasing from $18.4 to $67.4 million. During the same period, the annual average growth rate was 30%. Supply of Japanese whisky had depleted quickly, and some producers had stepped in with nontraditional, even questionable, methods to pump-up supply.

A bottle from Karuizawa's Budo Collection of whiskies
A bottle from Karuizawa’s Budo Collection of whiskies / Photo by John McCaffery

“Snake oil salesmen, like certain distilleries that import Scotch whisky in bulk and then bottle and sell it as ‘Japanese whisky’ to unsuspecting consumers, have been given cease and desist orders,” says Christopher Pellegrini, cofounder of Honkaku Spirits. “This is good for the reputation of the industry.”

The new requirements

As of April 1, 2021, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association will implement new labeling standards for its association members (note: not all producers of Japanese whisky are association members).

From 2015 to 2020, whiskey imports from Japan more than tripled, increasing from $18.4 to $67.4 million. 

“By clearly defining what ‘Japanese whisky’ is and making that information available to the public in Japan and abroad, we aim to clarify the confusing situation for the consumers,” the organization said in a February 16 statement.

To label a product as Japanese whisky, the following requirements must be met:

• Distillers must always use malted grains but may also include other cereal grains.

• Water used to make whisky must be extracted in Japan.

• Saccharification (conversion of starches into sugars, or mashing), fermentation and distillation must take place at a Japanese distillery.

• Whisky must be matured in wooden casks stored in Japan for at least three years.

• Bottling must take place only in Japan, with a minimum strength of 40% abv.

• Plain caramel coloring may be used.

• Whiskies that don’t meet the above requirements may not use the names of geographical locations in Japan, the Japanese flag, or the names of people that evoke the country in their labeling.

The outlier

Rice whisky has been a particular point of contention. Although rice is considered a cereal grain, and many are wholly made in Japan, a number of critics have suggested that rice whisky be classified as shochu instead.

“These products use koji for saccharification rather than malting,” explains Honkaku’s Pellegrini. A type of mold, koji is traditionally used in Japan to induce fermentation in products ranging from saké and soy sauce to miso and mirin.

Karuizawa's Spirit of Asama (left) and Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Heads 2011 edition (right)
Karuizawa’s Spirit of Asama (left) and Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Heads 2011 edition (right) / Photo by Alexa Bendek

“It is more than a little disappointing that Japanese whisky is choosing to follow Scotch whisky malting requirements at the expense of Japan’s own 1,200-year-old fermentation process,” says Pellegrini. “It seems that koji whisky needs to become an independent category so that well-received brands like Fukano and Oishi, or others that use koji saccharification on barley and other cereals, can continue to be enjoyed by American consumers.”

Some labels will change…

For some companies, the new labeling standards will spark changes.

For example, at importer/retailer Dekantā, there are no plans to change which bottles are brought into the U.S., explains founder and director Makiyo Masa. However, many products will be recategorized or relabeled to conform to the new standards, she says.

“Products that are known to contain both Japanese and imported whisky will be listed as ‘world blends,’” says Masa. “Any spirit that cannot be labeled as Japanese whisky under the new standards will be listed as being of ‘unspecified origin.’” This likely will apply to “less than 40%” of Dekantā imports, she estimates.

Yoichi Distillery, which produces Nikka Whisky / Courtesy of Asahi
Yoichi Distillery, which produces Nikka Whisky / Courtesy of Asahi

Meanwhile, Nikka Whisky, one of the two largest producers of Japanese whisky, says that categorization of whiskies in Nikka’s current line-up, such as Yoichi Single Malt and Taketsuru Pure Malt, will not change.

However, “Nikka has decided to provide further information for its individual products on their website to clearly distinguish between products in Nikka’s lineup, which contains both whiskies that are defined as ‘Japanese whisky’ according to the labeling standards, and those that do not meet all the criteria,” a representative for the company says. This measure “is an important step towards ensuring customer clarity so that they can reasonably decide which products to buy.”

…But others, not so much

Others have stated firmly that little will change. A representative from Beam Suntory says all of the whiskies the company exports from Japan already meet the new standards. Beam Suntory’s portfolio features Suntory Whisky, one of the two largest producers of Japanese whisky, including the Yamazaki, Hakashu and Hibiki labels. Suntory’s new Ao bottling, which incorporates whisky from Japan along with four other countries, is already labeled a “world whisky.”

“This is good for the reputation of the industry.”—Christopher Pellegrini, cofounder, Honkaku Spirits

Jeffrey Karlovitch, Master Blender for Kaiyo Whisky, part of LHK Spirits, also says no changes will be needed for Kaiyo. (Not sure which bottles might be subject to relabeling? This infographic put together by Nomunication may be helpful.)

While some U.S. consumers may have been caught off guard by the news, spirits producers have been working on these regulations for several years, Dekantā’s Masa assures.

“It took more than 10 years just to put the regulations in place,” she says. “Considering how popular Japanese whisky has been, it took too long.”

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