Japanese whisky is known for many things, among them the three T’s: tasty, trendy and takai—Japanese for expensive.
But one thing that the bottles of brown spirit that we call “Japanese whisky” isn’t is Japanese. That is, Japanese whisky is often not made in Japan, only bottled in the country.
Coveted bottles of the drink have gone for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since it began scooping up international awards about two decades ago, Japanese whisky has enjoyed a reputation of prestige, sitting comfortably among Scotch and bourbon like a prized trophy.
But only about 7 percent of the Japanese whisky currently on the market is actually made in Japan, according to whisky expert Mamoru Tsuchiya. The rest that are advertised as Japanese—often with images of the national flag and samurai pasted on bottles—are usually a blended concoction of other whiskies, like Scotch or bourbon, he said. Imagine splurging on a good Bordeaux wine and getting a bottle that was only filled there inside a drab factory.
But all of that muddled labeling is now changing.
Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association, a nongovernmental trade group of the country’s major alcohol producers, announced on Feb. 12 that Japanese whisky must now abide by new labeling standards.
From April 1, a “Japanese whisky” must be fermented, distilled, and aged, for at least 3 years, at a distillery in Japan. Water used to make the spirit must be also extracted in the country, and the alcohol content must exceed 40 percent.
Japanese distillery Suntory has clarified that Ao is not Japanese. Photo: Suntory Spirits Limited.
This means that certain drinks, like Nikka from the Barrel and Suntory Ao, will have to clarify they’re not “Japanese” whiskies. Nikka has already begun classifying which brands fall under the new definitions on its website.
Bottles already packaged as “Japanese whisky” can be legally sold until March 31, 2024.
Tsuchiya is behind part of the push to clarify what Japanese whisky is. His advocacy organization Japan Whisky Research Centre proposed new rules to the association in September 2019.
The trade group’s rules amount to self-regulation and are not legally binding. But as several makers have announced changes to their labels, Tsuchiya believes it will encourage authenticity. “Once consumers understand the difference between actual Japanese whisky and those sold under the guise of this tag, it’ll transform the whisky industry,” he told VICE World News.
According to Tsuchiya, Japanese whisky was always loosely defined so the government could collect liquor taxes more easily. “Before, it was ‘anything goes.’ It didn’t matter where the whisky was made, so long as it fit under a certain umbrella,” he said.
Japanese whisky was first made in the early 1900s. Distilleries hadn’t perfected recipes yet, and instead settled for an “imitation” whiskey: buying cheap foreign bottles, then adding color, scent, and taste to set itself apart. But the blends proved tasty and are now an essential part of whisky history.
“As it started winning liquor competitions, Japanese whisky took off, especially in Europe and other parts of Asia. The liquor symbolized Japan’s highly praised craftsmanship, culture of food, harmony and hospitality. It was almost like an urban legend,” he told VICE World News.
But with this international fame, it faced an identity crisis that prompted Tsuchiya to campaign for a change.
“Since its rising popularity some 20 years ago, variations of Japanese whisky that we’d never seen before started cropping up internationally. That’s because anyone who bottled their whisky in Japan could say they were selling Japanese whisky,” Tsuchiya said.
The masterful blend of rich flavors is in part what gives Japanese whisky its name value, but loose labeling laws that allowed any blends to be peddled as “Japanese” were a far cry from the dignified position it assumed.
For Kazunori Shizuya, a certified whisky master and owner of Shinjuku Whisky Salon, the new laws are a necessary evil to protect the brand of Japanese whisky. “Before, you could mix up to 90 percent of an entirely different alcohol and still call it Japanese whisky. It’s a really good thing the rules have changed,” he said, but he also worries that inequalities within the distillery industry would be further magnified.
For big corporate companies, like Suntory, Nikka and Kirin, abiding by the news rules simply means recreating the Scotch they used to import at home, Shizuya told VICE World News. But smaller craft distilleries may not have the equipment or manpower to do the same, and could be squeezed out if they could no longer call their liquors Japanese whisky, he said.
The bar selection at Shinjuku Whisky Salon. Photo: Hanako Montgomery
Yet Shizuya is holding out hope that craft distilleries will take new rules as an opportunity to expand flavor profiles and diversify the Japanese whisky market. He predicts that once these regulations settle in, Japanese whisky will only become more coveted—and with that, even pricier.
“The big corporate whisky companies have publicly announced which drinks abide by the new definitions. Surprisingly to many, there are actually quite a few reasonably priced ones: you can buy a bottle of Suntory Old for about 1,000 yen ($9). Not everything is expensive, but now that Japanese whisky has become more exclusive, greater demand could drive the price up,” he said.
“Sure, only the avid whisky drinkers knew that some Japanese whisky wasn’t really made here, but as more customers become aware of what they’re drinking, I think more people will seek it out.”