New Rules for Japanese Whisky – 2021

Portugal and Japan have a much deeper connection than you might think. The Portuguese were the first western culture to have contact and trade with the Japanese. And like any contact, there were curious influences on both sides. The Portuguese inherited some words from the Japanese vocabulary, such as “catana” and “biombo”.

The Japanese started to use a series of words of Portuguese origin, adapted to the sound of their language. For example, pan, koppu, tabako and arkoru – that their etymological deduction power must have already indicated that they are respectively bread, glass, tobacco and alcohol. In fact, a combination of words that showed that there was also a certain affinity between cultures when it came to setting priorities and having fun.

In fact, Japanese culture has a beautiful characteristic. To incorporate elements from other cultures, and transmute them into something essentially Japanese. Tempura – yes, frying – is an example. The Japanese did not know the technique until the arrival of the Portuguese. And whisky, too. Whisky in Japan is approximately a century old. The technique was learned from the Scots, but the Japanese liquid already has an identity of its own. So much so that it became a huge fever in the world.

A fever without laws. So far. Because in February 2021 the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association (JSLMA) announced new identification standards for Japanese Whisky. A measure that, let’s face it, was needed for a long time. Before we get into the legal details, however, I think a basic recap on the Japanese whisky scene is important.

Until today, there were almost no laws in Japan regarding the production and marketing of whisky. And, because of this, it was allowed – or rather, it was not illegal – for a whisky distilled and matured in another country and bottled in Japan to be labeled as Japanese whisky. In other words, a certain producer could buy 100 percent of Scotch whisky, ship it to Japan, bottle it there and call it Japanese whisky.

California Roll – more Japanese than a lot of Japanese whisky

This practice may seem absurd, but historically it made sense. First because, in the past, Japanese whisky was not the fever it is today. The country had few distilleries at the dawn of its production. And, importing the product in bulk, ready, and mixing it with Japanese whisky made in Japan (no, that’s not a pleonasm) helped to lower costs and increase sensory richness.

It so happens that, over time, the scenario has changed. Japanese whisky has become unbelievably coveted. As a result, the stock of truly mature Japanese whiskies nearly ran out. And what remained were sold at astronomical prices. Furthermore, the lack of market regulation – previously beneficial as it allows for sensory wealth – has given way to opportunism. Certain companies started to take advantage of this historical permissiveness to deceive the consumer. Buy cheap whiskies and bottle them in Japan, labeling them as Japanese whisky.

With the rise to fame of Japanese whisky, the old rules became obsolete. or rather, they became nothing, because there were no rules in this eastern western that was Japanese whisky. So far. Because, starting from the suggestive date of April 1, 2021, the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association (JSLMA) – a kind of Japanese SWA – finally announced new guidelines for whisky labeling in Japan.


Perhaps, at this point in the post, this goes without saying. But we decided to translate part of the statement that introduces the regulation of the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association, and which clarifies the reasons behind this much-desired rule.

It is regrettable that in recent years there have been cases of brands using only imported whiskies and selling them as “Japanese whisky”, and cases of products that do not even qualify as “whisky” under Japanese tax laws, but which are sold as such in other countries, sowing confusion among consumers

Looking back at the history of whisky production in Japan, it is important to note that our journey began by learning the arts and crafts of Scotch whisky producers, as our predecessors began to create a distinct type of whisky, establishing a uniquely Japanese technique over the years.

It goes without saying that these developments are part of the history, tradition and culture of whisky production in Japan. The products created through this process have enriched whisky culture in Japan and are supported by many people around the world. JSLMA members are grateful for the efforts of our ancestors.

(…) by clearly defining what ‘Japanese Whisky’ is, and making this information available to the public in Japan and abroad, we seek to clarify the confusing situation for consumers. “

Yamazaki – 100% Japanese


Let’s get to a prior clarification. The Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association (JSLMA) is not a Japanese government body. But a private association, approved by the Japanese government. It is a kind of self-regulatory entity, similar to what would SEC be in the US, or ANBIMA in the Brazilian Capital Market. Yeah, you didn’t expect that, right Gordon Gekko?

According to JSLMA, the new standards are intended (…) to contribute to the proper selection of whiskies by consumers in Japan and abroad, and to protect the interests of consumers as well as ensure fair competition and improve quality“. and continues “these standards apply to whiskies sold in Japan, or sold from Japan abroad, by business operators (ie companies)”

The JSLMA regulation provides a table with the rules to be followed by whisky producers in Japan, so that they can label their products as “japanese whisky” or “Japanese whisky”. The first is that raw materials must be limited to malted grains, or other cereals, and water must be extracted from Japan. Malted grains must always be used.

The second determination concerns the production itself. The saccharification, fermentation and distillation must be done by a distillery in Japan. Here, there is an important point. Malting is a kind of saccharification. Which means that here there is a divergence between Scotland and Japan. And that the new Japanese rules are even more restrictive than the SWA’s Scottish ones. In the oriental version, malting must be done in Japan. It is not allowed to buy malted barley from other countries. Additionally, the alcoholic strength after distillation must not exceed 95% – so that afterwards it is obviously cut with water.

The third refers to maturation, and is almost a mirror of the Scottish rule. Almost. The new-make spirit must be placed in wooden barrels of no more than 700 liters for at least three years. If you read it fast, you might have missed a detail. Or maybe we’re just lost in translation, like Bill Murray. But the use of the word “wood” is curious – it is not clear whether oak is the only barrel allowed. We should wait for news.

Lost in this too

Finally, bottling must take place in Japan, and the alcoholic strength must be at least 40%. This rule is also more restrictive than the Scottish one, which allows blended scotch whiskies to be bottled outside of Scotland. Under the Scotch Whisky Association rule, only single malts must be bottled in their country of origin. Additionally, only plain caramel coloring can be used in Japanese Whiskies.

The rule also states that there should not be any expressions or terms between the words “japanese” and “whisky”, except to indicate the type of whisky – for example, single malt or blended. And for the smart ones, synonyms are also covered by the rule. So, no Japanese whisky, for example. The regulation goes further, and also says that it is not worth making a whisky that looks like a Japanese, with ideograms, names and expressions that are clearly Japanese. No “Hokusai Whisky” or “Mount Fuji“.

All these guidelines, however, have an adaptation period. As of April 1st, new products (launched after that date) must follow the published rules. However, whiskies that didn’t follow the rule before may remain rebellious until March 31, 2024, as is – surprisingly – the case with Nikka From the Barrel. In other words, until then, not all Japanese whisky will be real Japanese.

It is important to point out that, unlike Scotland and its Scotch Whisky Association, the JSLMA rules do not have the force of law. But, they are valid for the members of the association. Which, in practice, does not mean the end of non-Japanese Japanese whisky. But it is an important step in the transparency of a market that has been lacking in some transparency for years. And more transparency and equality bring more security to the consumer – and help maintain the good name of japanese whisky in the world. Kampai to that.

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