The Surprising Reason Japanese Whisky Is Tightening Its Rules

In February of this year, the Japan Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA) set rules for what a Japanese whiskey is. The whiskey — or "whisky" — now has to be made with malted grains and distilled in Japan. Its production method, from creation to aging and bottling needs to be done in the country. And if any additive is to be included in the beverage, only "plain caramel coloring" would be allowed (via Bloomberg). The new regulations might baffle an ardent whiskey fan, but to those who love the drink and have paid out significant amounts of cash for it, the new regulations are a step in the right direction. 

Until now, there were no clear rules that defined exactly what a Japanese whiskey was, and in several exposés that ran last year, experts were calling out the fact that not only were a number of award-winning whiskeys not distilled in Japan, some of the whiskeys were not whiskeys at all. In May 2020, The New York Times revealed that Japanese distillers could buy large quantities of whiskey from countries like the U.S., Canada, or the UK and call it Japanese. They could bottle shochu, which is made with rice or barley, and call it whiskey. Some distillers didn't even bother distilling the spirit themselves — they imported it — and got another company to bottle it. As whiskey expert Stefan van Eycken tells Bloomberg, if regulations "were any looser, you'd be able to sell tap water as Japanese whisky."

The rules are not as straightforward as they seem

Bloomberg reports that the regulations, which are set to take effect in April of this year, only apply to new products. Spirits that are currently on sale have until March 31, 2024 to comply. Even then, Forbes highlights the fact that the standards cannot be legally enforced. 

Still, top-selling whiskey brands, like Nikka, are prepared to make adjustments to meet the new rules. One Nikka spokesperson admitted to Bloomberg that some of their products don't comply with the new standards because some of their blended whiskies contain Scottish spirits. Still, the spokesman says Nikka isn't planning to change their blend, because their priority is to keep the flavor of its spirit consistent. Nikka's admission that its whiskey is the result of a blend is jarring, because fans had no idea it was a blend that included spirits that did not originate from Japan. Bloomberg says a bottle which should retail for $65, can fetch up to $200.

There is still a chance imposter whiskeys could make it into the market. Not everyone is like Nikka, and while the JSLMA's members are in lock step with these changes, whiskey expert Dave Broom says there are still loopholes. "As it stands there is nothing to stop a bottler/shochu producer who isn't a member of the association to continue to release dubiously labelled liquid," he tells Forbes. Broom is calling for labeling which will help the average consumer distinguish between a genuine Japanese whiskey and a wannabe.