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Japan Moves to Regulate Whisky Labelling

By Evigan Xiao

Bottles of Suntory's Yamazaki, Chita and Hibiki whiskies.
Bottles of Suntory's Yamazaki, Chita and Hibiki whiskies.

A new sun rises on the horizon for Japanese whisky as new standards regulating labelling practices come into play. Under these new rules, distilleries will only be able to label their expressions as "Japanese Whisky" if certain conditions are met. For starters, raw ingredients must be sourced from Japan. Production (with alcohol content not exceeding 95 per cent at the time of distillation), maturation (three years minimum) and bottling must also take place in Japan, with the final alcohol by volume (ABV) rating being a minimum of 40 per cent. 

The Japan Spirits & Liquors Association's latest announcement aims to "protect the interests of consumers, ensure fair competition, and improve quality". This also involves tackling the issue of misleading labels, where expressions that fail to meet the new criteria for Japanese whisky present themselves in a fashion that connote or implicitly suggest a Japanese connection.

In such instances, distilleries may not use labels containing either the names of people that evoke Japan, names of Japanese cities, regions or landmarks, the Japanese flag or historical eras. Labelling a product that misses the mark for Japanese whisky production as otherwise is also prohibited under the new ruling.

ShutterstockBottlings of Japanese whiskies from various distilleries.
Bottlings of Japanese whiskies from various distilleries.

The new labelling standards are effective April 1, 2021, and comes at a time when the global demand for Japanese whisky is at an all-time high. Many distilleries, like the ones owned by Suntory and Nikka, have discontinued several of their age statement expressions due to a shortage of stock. Such bottles on the second-hand and auction markets often go for a neat sum, commanding a premium that's several times that of their original retail cost.

Reactions to the announcement have been largely positive. Makiyo Masa, founder and director of independent bottler and retailer Dekantā, praised the move for the clarity it brings to the booming industry. “We have always felt a duty to offer as transparent a picture of Japanese whisky as possible, empowering consumers to make informed choices. I’m looking forward to seeing how the world of Japanese whisky will be shaped, now that clear expectations have been set," she adds.

Some critics, however, argue that the sentiment behind the new regulations is misplaced, particularly when Japanese whisky draws its origins from foreign production. 

Eli Raffeld is one such individual. The owner of High Road Spirits LLC and the primary importer in the U.S. for family-owned distilleries like Akkeshi and Chichibu maintains that current labelling practices do no real harm, at least in Japan. The practice of bottling and selling Japanese whiskies with foreign components has largely been internalised. "It’s common practice, almost to the point of tradition. So people don’t really think about it," he says.

ShutterstockWill the new regulation standards affect fans of Japanese whisky?
Will the new regulation standards affect fans of Japanese whisky?

Early distillers of whisky in Japan resorted to importing raw ingredients, such as barley from Scotland. This was due to two reasons: Japanese whisky was (and still is) largely modelled after Scotch. Japan was also not a major cultivator of barley at the time. However, the growth of the Japanese whisky industry has since allowed distilleries to bring their verticals in-house, utilising domestic barley and even performing their own malting. 

Certain expressions – like the Nikka Whisky From the Barrel – continue to utilise foreign components, at the distilleries' insistence. “We do not make superior or inferior distinctions of flavour based on geographical indications,” says Emiko Kaji, international business development manager for Nikka. “If using imported whiskies as a part of the formula is beneficial to create or maintain the flavours of our unique expressions, we will continue this practice.”

It is far too early to say whether stringent control over production methods will result in Japanese whiskies of higher quality, especially considering how the industry struck liquid gold in a time when Japan was seen as the Wild West of whisky-making. But for die-hard fans of the libation, an excess of transparency will hardly be considered a bad thing. It certainly helps to know what goes into one's dram, especially when you're paying top dollar for it.