Japanese whiskies by Suntory

Japanese whiskies (Photo by Jason Hong on Unsplash)

Not all Japanese whisky is really Japanese whisky. For the first time, Japan introduced new regulations to clearly define the sought-after spirit. Mari Yasuda details the new changes and charts the history of Japanese whisky.

The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association announced the definition of “Japanese Whisky (Whiskey)” on February 16 as a voluntary standard after a four-year discussion within the association.

According to the newly revised standards, the specified term ,”Japanese Whisky” (or “Japanese Whiskey”) may be used to label a whisky product only when such whisky satisfies the following production method quality requirements:

Raw ingredients must be limited to malted grains, other cereal grains, and water extracted in Japan. Malted grains must always be used. Saccharification, fermentation, and distillation must be carried out at a distillery in Japan. Alcohol content at the time of distillation must be less than 95%. The distilled product must be poured into wooden casks not exceeding a capacity of 700 liters and matured in Japan for a period of at least 3 years thereafter. Bottling must take place only in Japan, with alcoholic strength of at least 40% at the time of bottling.
Plain caramel coloring can be used.

The specified term, “Japanese Whisky” (or “Japanese Whiskey”) should be shown in a unified and integrated manner without inserting additional words between them.

The Labeling Standards will be effective starting from April 1, 2021.

For details, please refer to the Association’s website.

Japanese whiskies (pic: pexels)
Japanese whiskies (pic: pexels)

Why is  the definition of  “Japanese Whisky” required? 

Mr. Mamoru Tsuchiya , a leading whisky writer in Japan and CEO of the Japan Whisky Research Centre points out three major problems of the definition of whisky by the current Japanese Liquor Tax Act in his latest book titled Japanese Whisky: no regulation about the production place, no regulation about the aging of whisky, and spirits other than whisky and distilled alcohol can be blended. 

These problems are closely related to the history of the Japanese whisky. “ Thanks to the whisky blended with distilled alcohol, people could enjoy whisky in the era of severe product shortage just after the Second World War”, said Tsuchiya. Also, Japanese whisky makers did not have a tradition to exchange whisky stocks as Scotland whisky makers do; therefore, the imported whisky was one of the choices for the blend.

However, due to the recent popularity of Japanese whisky in the domestic and the overseas markets, the Japanese whisky industry feels a strong need for a clear definition of Japanese Whisky, because the “Japanese Whisky” which includes a large portion of  imported whisky or blended alcohol may confuse consumers and tarnish the image of high quality Japanese Whisky. 

The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association points out that “Nearly 100 years have passed since the commercial whisky production began in Japan and now, Japanese whisky making is highly recognized all over the world. It is unfortunate, however, that in recent years there have been cases where brands that only use imported foreign whiskies were being sold as “Japanese Whisky ” and cases where brands that do not meet the qualification of “whisky” under the Japanese liquor tax law were being sold as “ whisky”  in other countries, sowing confusion among consumers.”  More here

For this reason, The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association started the discussion to create a definition of Japanese Whisky in December 2016.

The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association says that “By clearly defining what “Japanese Whisky” is and making that information available to the public in Japan and abroad, we aim to clarify the confusing situation for the consumers. We also hope that [by] appealing the value of our whisky, which has evolved rather independently in the past century, to our customers and whisky enthusiasts around the globe, [it] would lead to further prosperity of the whisky industry in Japan.”

To mark the milestone new standards, here’s also my brief history of whisky making in Japan.

Japanese whiskies
Japanese whiskies (Photo by Changyoung Koh on Unsplash)

The first made-in-Japan whisky was produced by Kotobukiya (now Suntory) that started to construct a factory in Yamazaki, Kyoto (now Suntory Yamazaki distillery) in 1923. It was Masataka Taketsuru that conducted the construction of the factory and served as the first factory director. Taketsuru had stayed in Scotland from 1918 to 1920 to study whisky making, and he was invited by Shinjiro Torii, the then owner of Kotobukiya. The first made-in-Japan whisky was produced in 1929.

Taketsuru left Kotobukiya and established his own company “Dai Nihon Kaju” in Yoichi, Hokkaido in 1934. He selected Yoichi because the climate there was similar to that of Scotland. He started to make and stock raw whiskies while selling apple juice. In 1940, Taketsuru released the first whisky under the name of Nikka.

After the Second World War, consumption of whisky in Japan increased, so did its production. In the 1950s and 1960s, a cocktail  “highball” (a whisky mixed with soda water) became very popular and pushed up the consumption of whisky. In 1983, the consumption of whisky in Japan hit the highest record of 380,000 kl ; however, it continued to decrease gradually afterwards.

Wider selection of alcoholic beverages such as red wines and shochu had a negative effect on the consumption of whisky. Furthermore, the burst of economic bubbles and the resulting recession from 1991 worsened the situation.

However, the highball was rediscovered and became popular again in 2008. Young consumers who don’t know the former highball boom found that a highball is easy to drink rather than straight whisky because the alcohol degree is decreased due to the mixture with soda. At the same time, senior consumers who experienced the former highball boom returned to a highball again with the memories of their younger years.

Furthermore, a serial TV drama in 2014, which featured Mr.&Mrs. Taketsuru, raised further interest in whisky and promoted its consumption.

As a result,  based on the data of the National Tax Office, the consumption of whisky in 2018 was  174,770kl, nearly 1.5 times of that in 2014 (118,070kl).

Japanese whisky also gained popularity outside of Japan due to its high quality, so that its export increased. The export amount of Japanese whisky has continued to increase since 2010. In 2015, it surpassed 10 billion yen for the first time and became the second largest exported  alcoholic beverage in Japan next to sake. According to the preliminary figures from the National Tax Office,  for the export of alcoholic beverages in 2020, the export value of whisky was 27.1 billion yen. For the first time, whisky surpassed 20 billion yen and it overtook sake  (24.1 billion yen) as the largest exported alcoholic beverage. 

The increase of domestic consumption and export should be welcomed; however, Japanese whisky industry faces a severe problem of deficiency of raw whiskies. For this reason, Suntory, Nikka and Kirin distillery currently suspended the sales of part of their premium whiskies.

I hope that the newly established definition of “Japanese Whisky” will protect the brand value of Japanese whiskies and may contribute to its sales increase after the problem of deficiency of raw whiskies is resolved.

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