Big things are about to happen within the Japanese whisky industry with the announcement this week of a change to the laws governing the labelling of products from Japan. These have been drawn up to tackle growing concern that the reputation and sales of Japanese whisky, both of which have grown rapidly over the last decade, could be irreparably harmed if not acted upon. The current loose regulations can mislead customers, with the newly announced ones offering more transparency so that consumers know what they are purchasing and drinking.
At the core of this is that many Japanese whiskies are not what they appear to be - ie : they may not actually be Japanese. Many brands actually include whiskies from other countries (such as America, Australia, Canada, Ireland and Scotland) alongside Japanese whisky in the blend. In some cases there can be no Japanese whisky present at all in a 'Japanese' blend.
We have often spoken to people about this and explained, but they simply would not or could not believe us as they are looking at something that looks 'Japanese' in the way it is presented or marketed. In the current market, some brands are very transparent about the origins of what is included but others are not - this is not illegal but where the potential to mislead consumers and damage the reputation of Japanese whisky lays.
Therefore, the new requirements will see only products made in Japan to a specific set of criteria be allowed to name itself or allude to be 'Japanese whisky'. Anything else will have to be re-packaged to correctly show what the product is and origins of ingredients. In some cases, products may simply be discontinued by brand owners and disappear all together.
The new regulations are much more in line with other whisky producing nations, such as America and Scotland, that are heavily and strictly regulated by laws written long ago. The original Japanese 'laws' were written in the 1950s and have remained largely unchanged. These were more tax orientated rather than focussing on production methods, maturation, bottling and labelling. Similarly, the blending tradition of Japanese whisky is largely focused on flavour profiles rather than the origin of the contents.
So, from April 1st 2021 all members of JSLMA (Japanese Spirits & Liqueurs makers Association) will begin moving towards the standardisation of new labelling and transparency laws. In addition is the agreement to not allude to being Japanese through associated packaging, marketing, literature and naming. The deadline for completion of the transition programme is set as March 31, 2024.
A full legal list of details for these new changes can be seen on the JSLMA website here. From looking at these, here are the new regulations in a nutshell.
- Malted grain (wheat or corn in the case of single grain whisky and barley in the case of single malt) must be used. However, other cereal grains can also be included.
- Water used within production must be extracted in Japan.
- Mashing/ saccharification, fermentation and distillation must all take place at a distillery in Japan.
- The spirit must be distilled to less than 95% ABV.
- The spirit must be aged in Japan in wooden casks with a capacity of no more than 700 litres.
- The minimum time for spirit maturation is three years.
- The spirit must be bottled in Japan.
- Bottling strength of the spirit must be at least 40% ABV.
- Use of plain caramel colouring (E150) is permitted.
Also, going forwards any labelling that could see a product be mistaken for one that satisfies the above list of requirements will therefore not be allowed and will be banned. These include other factors, but are not limited to, such criteria as the use of names of people or places (eg: cities, mountains or rivers) that evoke thoughts of Japan, the use of the Japanese flag or other associated japanese symbols and the use of a Japanese Era name (the traditional calendar system where each Era begins with the crowning of a new Emperor).
A very good move and interesting times for the Japanese whisky industry. It will be very interesting to follow the transition and see how things develop.