Japanese Whisky Regulations On The Horizon

Just over a month ago, we spoke of industry plans to establish a Japanese Whisky Association that would set a standard for Japanese whisky, tightening regulations and quelling much of the controversy that is currently circulating around the industry, as customers demand more transparency on exactly what goes into the whiskies they are buying. Now, we have some more information thanks to an extensive interview published by Nomunication founder and writer, Whisky Richard. 

The current situation arose due to a distinct lack of regulation in the Japanese whisky industry. Unlike the world of Scotch, where producers are bound to follow a strict set of rules in the production, maturation and bottling of their products, in Japan, distillers and blenders can currently do whatever they like and label it as Japanese whisky.

This stretches from importing scotch and blending it with small amounts of Japanese whisky before labelling it as “Japanese whisky” (known as tea-spooning), to using neutral spirit made from molasses and imported from South America. Obviously, this is quite shocking and even angering to anyone looking to spend money on Japanese expressions, particularly given the current inflated prices of bottles, thanks to surging demand and severe shortages of supply. 

However, it’s worth remembering that the Japanese whisky industry is still only 100 years young, just a fraction of the age of the scotch and bourbon industries, only booming to worldwide popularity in the last 20 years. The lack of regulation thus far is not ideal, however it is understandable that no regulatory body has been created, given that until the early 2000s, it simply wasn’t required.

Once an industry experiences a boom, and receives worldwide recognition and interest, as Japanese whisky has, a requirement for tighter regulations becomes almost mandatory. 

Thankfully, it looks like a standard for what can, and can’t, be called Japanese whisky is on the horizon. 

The Japanese Whisky Research Centre

There are currently two separate organisations within Japan that are working towards this goal. The Japanese Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association and the Japanese Whisky Research Centre (we’ll refer to them as JSMA and JWRC for easiness). Both of these are striving to improve the current situation and create a standard for Japanese whisky and, interestingly, they are both going about it in different ways. 

The JSMA is an extra-governmental organisation that is closely linked to Japan’s National Tax Agency. Unlike the SWA in Scotland, who are dedicated to whisky makers and run autonomously with their budget made from membership fees contributed by the big producers based on their annual sales, the JSMA represents all spirits and liqueur makers in Japan, and has members pay a flat annual fee.

This obviously has its downfalls, given they can’t dedicate all of their time to the whisky industry, and the recurring annual budget has its limitations. However, the JSMA say they are working hard behind the scenes to put a legal standard in place for Japanese whisky. 

They have now been tackling the task for a number of years, and while they are confident that progress is being made, it’s worth noting that they need all of the big industry players on board, while also needing to define what this standard will be. It’s a lengthy process, but one that we could see come to a conclusion fairly soon, as the JSMA have stated they are close to finalizing their new definitions.

Japanese Whisky Research Centre & the Tokyo Whisky & Spirits Competition

The other organisation working towards setting a standard is the Japan Whisky Research Centre. They are an independent company led by Mamoru Tsuchiya, one of Japan’s leading whisky experts who has years of knowledge and experience in whisky, not just at home, but abroad too.

The JWRC are going about things in a slightly different way, however it looks likely that it could produce results in a much shorter time frame. They initially set out with the plan of creating a Japanese Whisky Association, much like the SWA in Scotland, but after some extensive lobbying and discussions with the JSMA, they realised that this was probably not a job for them. As previously mentioned, in order to create such an association, they would need the support of the whisky makers and producers, and the JSMA are simply better placed to deal with this. 

But setting a standard for Japanese whisky is something that the JWRC, and indeed Tsuchiya-San, are truly passionate about, and so they weren’t about to  give up on it and move on to the next thing. 

So, they changed their tact. They would still create their own defined standard for what can and what cannot be called Japanese whisky, but of course they would not be able to get this written into law. Instead, they simply aimed to create an environment where Japan’s whisky makers felt obliged, even pressured, to follow their suggestions. So, in 2019, they created the Tokyo Whisky & Spirits Competition (TWSC).

Prestigious whisky awards such as this are incredibly valuable to distillers and blenders. They allow their whiskies to gain recognition for their excellence and this, in turn, helps to boost the reputation of the distillery, the award-winning whisky and the number of bottles they sell.

As we all know, spirits competitions generally have a number of categories that distilleries and bottlers can enter their whiskies in to. This could be the country or region they come from (ie Best Japanese Whisky), or the number of years they have been aged for (ie Best 10-20 Year Old Single Malt). The caveat with the TWSC, is that in order to get your whisky into each of their categories, you have to meet their category standards.

It’s a clever and intriguing way to bring about a defined standard for Japanese whisky, and one that should have fantastic results. 

Sadly, the definition for each category wasn’t ready to be used in 2019, but the JWRC have stated that it will be ready for this year’s competition, which takes place in March.

The Standards

Whisky that has been distilled, matured and bottled in Japan can go into the category of “Japanese Whisky”. Unlike the SWA in Scotland, the JWRC hasn’t felt the need to limit wood types or even cask type. In fact, it’s not even necessary that the whisky is matured in a barrel. This was prompted by the possibility of using oke, a 700 year old Japanese craft of creating stunning wooden containers that are used for everything from storing rice and miso paste, to bathing.

The idea that these elegantly created containers could be used to mature and flavour whisky is a new one, but it’s not something that the JWRC are worried about. While they want tighter regulations on what you can call Japanese whisky, they’re also keen to allow for creativity and new processes to develop within the country’s industry.

The only other rule in this category is that the whisky be matured for at least two years. Again, this slightly differs to Scotland, where whisky must be aged for at least three years. The reduction in the required maturation period is simply to take into account the differing climate in Japan, where the higher humidity and warmer temperatures often result in the spirit maturing at a faster rate.

Expressions that meet these regulations can be called “Japanese Whisky”, everything outside of this, from tea-spooned whisky, to those made purely from imported spirit, will come under the “Japan-Made Whisky” category. 

While these rules don’t seem like much, they are a huge improvement on what we currently have (which is nothing) and they should definitely encourage producers to be more transparent with their labelling, and ultimately that is the end goal of both the JWRC and the JSMA.

Moving Forward

Moving forward it will be interesting to see how much of an effect this has on the actions of the distillers and producers, while it will also be worth taking note of whether the JSMA’s standard matches up to the one that has been set by the JWRC. 

Both are working towards the same end-goal, and so it would be something of a disappointment if there weren’t at least some parallels between both organisation’s definitions of Japanese whisky.

What we can say for certain is that we are progressing towards a more transparent, fairer industry and that’s something that we’re extremely excited about. It is the whisky-drinkers that have helped to propel the industry to global recognition and so it’s only right that they are told what is in the bottles they are buying. Hopefully it won’t be long before strict labelling is not just advised and encouraged, but also mandatory.

You can read Whisky Richard’s interview with Japan Whisky Research Centre Chief, Mamoru Tsuchiya, here.

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