New Standards For Labelling Japanese Whisky

in Feb 16, 2021

Exciting news today about Japanese whisky!  Changes are afoot in the rules regarding what can be labelled Japanese whisky - and what cannot.

This is in response to the previously lax system in Japan regarding goods of Japanese origin. Under the current system anything that was bottled in Japan and was whisky could be labelled as Japanese whisky - even if none of the constituent whiskies or ingredients were actually Japanese.

This wasn’t a problem historically when no-one outside of the domestic market was interested in Japanese whisky but with the exploding popularity of Japanese single malts from the likes of Karuizawa, Yoichi and Yamazaki, plus the high-end blends from Hibiki - and the consequent rapidly escalating prices across the Japanese whisky category as a whole - in the last few years a number of products have appeared labelled as Japanese whisky that do not contain whisky 100% produced in Japan.

In some cases, this has been relatively innocent experimentation - not to mention a long-standing tradition where Japanese whisky was mixed with Scotch by companies such as Nikka who own Scottish distilleries - and the companies involved have been reasonably upfront about what was happening.

However, there are more than a few products out there that contain whiskies distilled from Scotland and other countries including Canada that are assembled, blended and further matured in Japan before being labelled as Japanese Blended Whisky. By the letter of existing Japanese law this was okay - the product was whisky and reached its final form in Japan; but none of the constituent parts were Japanese, so in the eyes of many people in international markets to call them Japanese whisky is a bit of a stretch.

It’s to address this difference of perception and to remove confusion regarding blends of whiskies not distilled in Japan that the following guidance from the Japan Spirits and Liqueur Makers Association have been published. It’s worth noting that there is no legal force behind this, but all the major spirits producers are members of the association and will be bound by these rules.

This guidance sets out new criteria for the term ‘Japanese whisky’ to be used. In a nutshell, this new definition will bring Japanese whisky labelling into line with the accepted protocols already in place in Europe.

The salient parts of the new rules are as follows:

  1. The raw ingredients must include malted grains and Japanese water
  2. Saccharification [aka mashing], fermentation and distillation must be carried out in a distillery in Japan
  3. Ageing must take place in Japan for at least three years after the cask is filled
  4. The product must be bottled in Japan and must be at least 40%.

There’s more but it’s mostly standard stuff like ageing three years and maximum barrel size - you can read the full rules here and the accompanying statement from the Japan Spirits and Liqueur Makers Association here if you want to get into the nitty gritty.

The changes have necessitated some interesting clarifications on NIkka’s website - this one in particular for Nikka Coffey Malt:

“This product does not meet all the criteria of “Japanese whisky “ defined by the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association. Coffey Malt is all distilled in Nikka’s Coffey stills, but a part of the old batches in the formula was made from distillates imported from Ben Nevis and then distilled in our Coffey stills as a part of our experiments in the past.

Various other Nikka products including Nikka From The Barrel and Nikka Tailored are also labelled on the site as not meeting all of the new criteria. Certain Mars products and most if not all of Toguichi whiskies will also not meet the new criteria and will need to relabel or change their recipes. The new rules come into force from 1st April 2021 (but it’s not a joke) but existing products do not have to comply until 31st March 2024.

We are delighted that Japanese whisky will be conforming to what are fairly standard labelling norms in Europe. It’s a good move - we’re sure that this extra clarity and transparency will benefit the category and improve future customer confidence in Japanese whiskies.

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