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Japanese whisky makers face tighter rules on labelling


By Matt MacPherson

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Stricter rules will soon be applied to label Japanese whisky clearly.
Stricter rules will soon be applied to label Japanese whisky clearly.

I’ve previously written articles about my love of Japanese whisky and have always defended the category when folk would say “they’ve just copied us” or “it’s not as good as ours”.

The fact is, whisky has been made in Japan for almost 100 years and they make some of the best liquid you’d be privileged to try. Unfortunately, that is not the complete story.

The huge growth outside of Japan in the past few years has started to show cracks in the way that it is regulated and led to calls from both in and outside of the Japanese whisky community to have stricter rules on its production and labelling.

Last month, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association announced the steps that it is taking to tighten up what producers mean by the term “Japanese Whisky”.

So what’s going on? The rest of the world has become aware that Japanese regulations and traditions of whisky-making didn’t necessarily line up with that of other countries. This was especially veracious when it comes to what was allowed to be included when creating a whisky.

The laws around Japanese whisky date back to the 1950s and have been fairly stagnant. They are governed by the tax department and collecting the correct duties is the primary concern, how it’s made is not.

Additionally, the tradition of Japanese whisky blending focused on the resulting blend and its flavour rather than the original components. The outcome of this has been that even if a bottle of whisky says “Product of Japan” on the label, it could be made up partly or even altogether of spirit distilled and matured outside of the country.

While numerous producers are clear about the source of there spirit, many are not. There have been ongoing discussions for years about how to update the regulations, but Japanese bureaucracy moves slowly and nothing official has appeared yet from the tax office.

However, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association is now issuing guidelines for its members to try and increase transparency.

As of April 1, members of the JSLMA will start to move towards a new standard for labelling their whiskies with a deadline to follow them set for March 31, 2024. The rules are much more in tune with the rest of the world and do go into important detail but in short, to be called “Japanese Whisky” the spirit must: always include malted grain, use water extracted in Japan, production must take place in Japan, matured in wooden casks in Japan for a minimum of three years and bottled in Japan.

So what does this mean? Most of the major producers in Japan are members of the JSLMA and each will handle the rules differently. Some will change the make-up of their whiskies to meet the new rules, others will simply label their spirit as “Whisky” and some whiskies might even be discontinued.

I’m personally delighted with this news, as I mentioned at the start, I’m a big fan of Japanese whisky but as a consumer, I want to know what I’m buying. Transparency is crucial in creating confidence and I hope this news encourages you to experience whisky from Japan!

  • Matt MacPherson is the owner and founder of The Malt Room in Inverness.

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