Big news just in! The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association has announced new tighter Japanese whisky regulations. That means some of our favourite Japanese whiskies will no longer be classed as ‘Japanese whisky.’ Confused? Read on.

It’s something of an open secret in the drinks business that much whisky that is labelled Japanese contains spirits from other countries, mainly Scotland and Canada. At Scotch whisky distilleries, it’s common to see huge plastic containers full of whisky to be exported to Japan where it’s blended and then exported back as Japanese whisky. As Japanese whisky as a category has boomed, bulk imports from Scotland have increased four-fold between 2013 and 2018 according to the SWA.

Japanese whisky must be distilled in Japan

There’s been a lot of rumours attached to which blends contained non-Japanese whisky. Now and not before time, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association has announced what can and can’t be defined as Japanese whisky. The rules don’t have legal powers but will apply to all the association’s members which include the country’s main producers such as Nikka and Suntory (full list here). 

You can read the full standards here but the crucial part is: “saccharification, fermentation, and distillation must be carried out at a distillery in Japan” in order to be labelled as ‘Japanese whisky.’ Furthermore, the resulting spirit should be no higher than 95% ABV and must be aged for a minimum of three years in wooden casks no bigger than 700 litres and bottled with a minimum ABV of 40%.

Brian Ashcraft, author of Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit, commented: “They’re a good step in the right direction. It’s important to have some rules of the road. The concern for me, though, is there is still some wiggle room and that unscrupulous people are going to continue to be unscrupulous. It would be good if this was covered by laws to be honest.” He went on to say: “For instance, the wiggle room I’m talking about is that they cannot prevent people from slapping a kanji character on a bottle or, if it’s sold in Japan, labeling the whole thing in Japanese”.

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Yoichi distillery, real Japanese whisky made here

Statement from Nikka

The deadline to follow the rules is 31 March 2024 so at the moment labels don’t reflect the new ruling. Nikka, however, has updated its site to make it clear which whiskies are now technically ‘Japanese whisky.’ In a statement, the company announced: 

“We have decided to provide further information for individual products on our website to clearly distinguish between products in Nikka Whisky’s line-up, which contains both whiskies that are defined as ‘Japanese whisky’ according to the labeling standards, and those that do not meet all the criteria. We feel this is an important step towards ensuring customers’ clarity so as that they can reasonably decide which products to buy and information will be updated if the status changes.”

Looking at the Nikka website, you can see that Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts, Coffey Grain and Taketsuru Pure Malt pass the new rules, whereas popular blends like Nikka Days, the Nikka and our favourite, Nikka from the Barrel have the following disclaimer: “This product does not meet all the criteria of ‘Japanese whisky ‘ defined by the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association.” It doesn’t state where they stray from the rules but we are sure that Master of Malt customers will be able to work it out.