Stricter Standards For What Can Be Labeled “Japanese Whisky” Will Soon Go Into Effect

By Robert Ham / February 24, 2021

A good portion of the Japanese whisky industry is looking to clear up any confusion regarding the provenance of their spirits with the introduction of new labeling standards for each bottle their distillers produce.

The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA) recently put forth a set of guidelines to determine which bottles can legally be called “Japanese whisky.” In a prepared statement, the association states that “there have been cases where brands that only use imported foreign whiskies [are] being sold as ‘Japanese whisky’ and cases where brands that do not meet the qualification of ‘whisky’ under the Japanese liquor tax law being sold as ‘whisky’ in other countries, sowing confusion among customers.”

Japanese whiskies

The Hibiki 21 year old (image via Beam-Suntory)

Beginning on April 1, 2021, distillers who are members of the Association (not all producers of Japanese whisky are) will be allowed to label their product as Japanese whisky so long as they follow these requirements:

  • Distillers must always used malted grains, but have the option of including other cereal grains
  • Water used in the process must be extracted in Japan
  • Saccharification, fermentation, and distillation must happen at a Japanese distillery
  • The product must be matured in wooden casks stored in Japan for at least three years
  • Bottling must take place only in Japan, with a 40% ABV minimum strength
  • Coloring: Plain caramel coloring can be used

In addition, the JSLMA is putting restrictions in place on those whiskies that don’t meet the above requirements, by prohibiting distillers from using names of geographical locations in Japan, the Japanese flag, or the names of people that evoke the country in their labeling. The only exceptions under this would be in the case whereby “measures are taken to clarify that the product being labeled does not meet such requirements.”

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The impact of this decision won’t be immediate, as distillers have until March 31, 2024 to fully implement these rules. That gives them plenty of time to clear their inventory of bottles with labels that don’t meet the label guidelines and work to bring their production processes in line with these new standards.

“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,” the JSLMA statement continued. “We also hope that appealing the value of our whisky, which has  evolved rather independently in the past century, to our customers and whisky enthusiasts around the globe, would lead to further prosperity of the whisky industry in Japan.”