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Japanese Whisky Law: What You Need To Know

Japanese Whisky Law: What You Need To Know

As of April 1st of 2024 A huge change has been implemented in Japanese whisky. This has been in the works since 2021.

The definition of Japanese whisky has finally been codified and the implementation timeline has ended. From now on any bottle labelled as Japanese whiskey has to conform to the rules.

So what are the new rules?

  • Raw ingredients: Raw ingredients can only be cereal grains or malted grains, and water extracted in Japan. Malted grains must always make up part of the mash bill.
  • Production: Saccharification (conversion of starch into simple sugars), fermentation, and distillation must be carried out at a distillery in Japan. Alcohol content at the time of distillation must be less than 95%
  • Aging: The distilled product must be filled into wooden casks not
    exceeding a capacity of 700 litres and matured in Japan for a
    period of at least 3 years from date of filling.
  • Bottling: Bottling can only take place in Japan, and must be bottled at a strength of no less than 40% ABV.
  • Other: Plain caramel colouring can be used, no other additives.

But these rules look so similar to Scotch or Irish? What was previously allowed?

Well, historically there had been no written rules as to what constituted a Japanese whiskey. When Japanese whiskey experienced its first boom in the 1970’s and 80’s the supply of Japanese whiskey wasn’t enough to keep up with demand. This meant that the Japanese started blending in international whiskies into their own stock and labelled it as Japanese whisky. For this purpose (allegedly) Nikka bought Ben Nevis distillery in 1989. It is rumoured that Nikka’s famous “from the barrel” made heavy use of Ben Nevis spirit, a theory given some credence by the fact that it dropped “Japanese” from the label after the new rules were announced.

Another common practice in Japan was labelling aged or artificially darkened Shochu as Whiskey. Shochu is the traditional native spirit of Japan and is made from rice, sweet potato or over 40 other raw materials, Importantly though Shochu must be fermented using Koji mould and cannot contain malted grains: definitely not whisky. It is important to note this is not a dig at shochu, I absolutely adore it as a drink, and find the manufacturing process for it fascinating, It is simply that it is not whisky and should be promoted on its own merits rather than deceiving customers who are looking for a proper Japanese whisky.

This is why the new rules are so important and deserve so much praise, even if Japan seems quite late to the game regulating this. These rules make it so consumers can buy Japanese whisky safe in the knowledge that their product is real whisky actually from Japan, and can only be good for safeguarding the reputation of the beverage worldwide, and the definitions aren’t too strict to stifle creativity in the booming industry.

The lack of strong definitions and protections were also why we at Caskcap have been hesitant to offer any Japanese whisky casks to our clients, despite repeat demand. Now that Japanese whiskey has the guidelines to prove provenance, we will absolutely be looking at forging relationships with Japanese distilleries in the future.