In the 7th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your hosts Christopher Pellegrini & Stephen Lyman introduce the newly announced Japanese whisky standards. In this third of a planned four-part series on Japanese whiskies, we dive into the production quality standards, labeling rules, and other arcane parts of the new guidance issued by the Japanese Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association (JSLMA). These voluntary standards go into effect April 1, 2021 and JSLMA members are expected to be fully compliant by March 31, 2024.
NOTE: This episode is being released between 2 regularly scheduled podcast episodes due to the “breaking news” nature of these announcements.
CHRISTOPHER PELLEGRINI Vermont born and bred, long-time Tokyo resident and author of The Shochu Handbook, Christopher learned all about delicious fermentations as a brewer at Otter Creek (Middlebury, VT). He now spends most of his waking hours convincing strangers that shochu and awamori are unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
If you have any comments or questions about this episode of Japan Distilled, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
The need for these Japanese whisky standards may not be readily apparent to casual drinkers or even fans of whisky more generally, but “real” (meaning verifiably produced with grains) whisky has been produced in Japan since at least 1926, but there has never been an official definition of what Japanese whisky means. As such, as Japanese whisky has become popular overseas, some entrepreneurs have started importing Scotch, Canadian, and American whiskies in bulk and bottling them in Japan with fancy Japanese labels even though the spirit inside the bottle is 100% NOT Japanese whisky.
Additionally, Japanese shochu produced from grains and then aged in oak barrels meets the standards of whisky in America so several shochu makers have begun selling their products as whisky in the US, though to their credit none of them have used the term “Japanese whisky” on their packaging.
As a result of these recent competitive developments, the JSLMA, which is a trade association of western style spirits makers (their website is even yoshu.or.jp – “yoshu” means “western liquor” in Japanese), finally decided the time had come to specifically define Japanese whisky standards. And specific they were!
Japanese Whisky Standards
On Feburary 12, 2021, the JSLMA announced their “Standards for Labeling Whisky.” Central to these Japanese whisky standards are the “Production Method Quality Requirements” by which Japanese whisky will henceforth be defined.
JSLMA members have until March 31, 2024 to become compliant.
Whisky can still be made in Japan without meeting these Japanese whisky standards, but it can no longer be labeled and promoted as Japanese whisky. Nikka was quick to change their website to clearly show which of their whiskies met these new standards and which did not.
There are a few other prescriptions in these new standards that attempt to further protect this newly minted “accepted” definition of Japanese whisky.
Deceptive Labeling names, places, the Japanese flag, and other labeling that would give the impression that the product is Japanese whisky when it does not adhere to the above quality standards is not permitted.
Non-Compliant Vendors no members of the JSLMA may sell any product to an outside vendor (exporter, foreign distributor, brand owner) who engages in the deceptive labeling practices above.
In other words, not only are Japanese whisky companies not allowed to create packaging that evokes Japanese whisky, they are also not permitted to sell product to an outside company who would attempt to do so.
All told these new Japanese whisky labeling standards are long overdue, a net benefit to consumers, and will likely have the intended effect of protecting both the reputation and bottom lines of the Japanese whisky makers themselves.
In one blow they have eliminated imported bulk whisky being relabeled and sold as Japanese whisky as all Japanese whisky must now be 100% produced in Japan. Of course, there is nothing preventing non-JSLMA members from violating these terms, but most if not all domestic whisky makers hope to be members in good standing of this trade organization. Even Matsui Distillery of the notorious Kurayoshi brand wants to be part of the club.
This does not, of course, prevent Suntory and Nikka, both of whom own Scotch distilleries (Suntory even owns Jim Beam) from importing their foreign made whiskies for domestic blends or even in whiskies exported, but not labeled as Japanese whisky.
The other thing that remains to be seen is how shochu makers respond. Many of them are not member of the JSLMA since they have their own trade association, the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. Shochu and awamori makers have now gotten the short end of the whisky debate stick twice in recent history.
In 1997, Japan signed a treaty with the WTO which was designed to settle a dispute between the WTO and Japan over what was seen as an unfair domestic tax regime. Japan taxed imported whisky at a higher rate than domestic whisky and shochu and awamori at an even lower rate than that. The treaty harmonized taxes on imported spirits and Japanese domestic spirits. Another minor concession was that Japanese shochu and awamori could no longer be sold in Japan if it were darker than 0.08 optical density on a light spectrophotometer. Whiskies are typically 0.20 to 0.80 on this scale.
That effectively left many shochu and awamori makers with cask aging product they could not sell without either heavily filtering or diluting the barrel aged spirits. It took a while, but a few of them realized they could export it and sell it in the US as rice whisky. These standards seem to be an attempt at closing that door once again since shochu and awamori makers are expressly prohibited from malting their grains and malted grains are now required for Japanese whisky.
Time will tell how all of this plays out.
Note: A full official English translation of these new standards can be downloaded from the JSLMA website.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
WHISKY RISING by Stefan Van Eycken the definitive guide to Japanese whisky. A veritable encyclopedia of information.
JAPANESE WHISKY by Brian Ashcraft an accessible, well-researched introduction to the best whiskies from Japan.
THE WAY OF WHISKY by Dave Broom an international whisky expert’s journey through Japan.
Nomunication a Japanese Whisky-focused site run by whisky professional Whisky Richard.