Six Japanese whisky bottles on a bar shelf in front of more bottles
Photo: Jason Goh/pixabay

What you need to know about the new definition of Japanese whisky

Local distillers including Suntory and Nikka helped to create new rules for what qualifies as Japanese whisky

Kit Kriewaldt
Written by
Kit Kriewaldt
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It’s no secret that the best Japanese whisky can be hard to find – even in Japan. Despite all the limited-edition bottles and the re-releases of old single malts, the good stuff is in chronically short supply. In fact, there’s even less Japanese-made whisky out there than you think.

What's the problem?

With only about a dozen whisky distilleries in the entire country, Japanese whisky makers simply haven’t been able to keep up with the increasing demand over the past decade. Many distillers have taken to blending their product with whisky bought from overseas in order to make supplies last longer. Although Japan isn't the only country where distillers do this, drinkers looking for purely Japanese whisky find it hard to sort out what's what.

You mean no one could tell which bottles were actual Japanese whisky?

Unlike in Scotland, where adding booze from another country to the mix means you can’t call it Scotch anymore, Japanese whisky never had a formal definition of production. That means there was nothing stopping an unscrupulous brand from blending Scotch with shochu, or simply importing whisky from overseas, bottling it here in Japan and then slapping on a ‘Japanese whisky’ label.

That’s going to change, thanks to rules from the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA). After years of consultation, the group released a set of criteria that a spirit must satisfy in order to be called Japanese whisky.

So what is Japanese whisky?

The full list of rules is published in English on the JSLMA website, but here are some key points about provenance, which are important whether you're drinking or collecting Japanese whisky:

  • The spirit must be fermented, distilled and aged at a distillery in Japan
  • It must contain malted grain (eg barley, wheat, rye), but other non-malted cereal grains can also be included
  • Water used to make the spirit must be extracted in Japan
  • The spirit must be aged for at least three years
  • It must be bottled in Japan

When do the rules apply?

The rules came into effect on April 1 2021, but distillers have until March 31 2024 to make sure their labels comply. The new rules don’t come with any penalties and, of course, they only apply to brands that are part of the JSLMA. But the industry body represents most of Japan’s distilleries, including big guns like Suntory and Nikka, along with smaller outfits like Venture Whisky, the company behind cult favourite Ichiro’s Malt. Spirits that don't meet all the requirements can still be labelled as whisky, just not Japanese whisky.

See our handy guide to the best (genuine) Japanese whisky still available on shelves.

This article was published on February 24 2021 and updated on April 5 2022.

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