japan whisky regulations

Credit: Nikkei Asia

Japan's new whisky regulations: What do they mean?

29 March, 2021

Plans to protect the reputation of Japanese whisky have been unveiled, but do they go far enough? Shay Waterworth looks at the implications.

The release of a new set of regulations for the production of Japanese whisky in February brought a sigh of relief from major players in the category. The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association announced the rules, stating that to be labelled “Japanese whisky” the product must be made from malted barely, use local water and be fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in Japan, while also being aged in wooden casks for three years and bottled at a minimum 40% abv. This prompted the creation of a tongue-in-cheek bottle shot of Nikka Whisky from the Ben Nevis, which made the rounds on social media. The edited picture was poking fun at the open secret that Japanese distiller Nikka has previously shipped whisky from its Ben Nevis distillery in Scotland for use in its Japanese blends.

To many consumers this would be a shock, but actually Japanese brands have a history of importing whiskies from around the world to use in their blends and it’s certainly not frowned upon by the local industry. A combination of the rise in popularity of Japanese whisky and a deep running corporate competitiveness has prevented distilleries from selling stocks to other domestic producers, therefore they rely on overseas whiskies to generate volumes. The use of foreign whiskies is actually acknowledged as part of the category’s culture by the JSLMA, but under its new regulations this looks set to change.

According to the association, the new regulations will aim to “contribute to the appropriate selection of whisky products by consumers in Japan and abroad, and to thereby protect the interests of consumers, ensure fair competition and improve quality”. So it seems that, while it’s taken a lot longer than expected, the association is planning for the future by protecting the reputation and integrity of Japanese whisky before word gets out among consumers.

However, while the principles are in place, they won’t be enforced until March 31, 2024 and even then the regulations are voluntary, not law. This means that not only can brands still use foreign whiskies, but some may continue producing misleading products for the local and international markets.

In the long term it seems unlikely that the association will ever be in a position to truly enforce these regulations and therefore the integrity of Japanese whisky will largely rely on the leadership of big brands. Following the announcement, Beam Suntory, the biggest producer of Japanese whisky, gave this statement: “We fully support the implementation of these new standards of identity for Japanese whisky. We believe that these standards will help to further distinguish the Japanese whisky category.”

Hideki Kanda, chief executive of Suntory Spirits, adds: “We believe the new definition will allow us to further promote the quality of Suntory whisky overseas, as well as help differentiating Japanese whisky from other whiskies around the world.”

With the influence of major brands and a basic framework set out by JSLMA, the regulation of Japanese whisky has taken a big step forward. However, without any significant power and a three-year window of grace for brands, it’s hardly a cutthroat solution. And as prices of Japanese whisky continue to boom internationally, it seems unlikely the selling of stocks to other domestic producers will be prioritised and therefore the reliance on foreign whiskies will remain in order to satisfy the demand. 

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