Pick up any Scotch bottle and you automatically know one basic fact; it’s from Scotland. The same truth-in-labeling rules apply to Irish, Canadian, and American whiskeys. The strict regulations provide continuity and transparency, preventing potential abuse of the national identity.
And then there’s Japan.
Many Japanese whiskeys aren’t made in Japan. Lax labeling rules allow even wholly imported whisky to be called “Japanese.” Some aren’t even technically whisky. Despite the stuff’s explosive marketplace growth, Japan’s leading whisky guru, Mamoru Tsuchiya, states the problem clearly: “There are a lot of situations where you call it Japanese whisky, but they’re using imported Scotch or Canadian whisky.”
To stave off consumer backlash, Tsuchiya is leading the charge to establish national guidelines. Many of the premier brands, such as Suntory’s Yamazaki line, are 100% made-in-Japan. Nikka, Hibiki, and Hakushu have defended their provenance. Others are resisting the movement. Makiyo Masa, founder of online retailer Dekanta, agrees that the lack of standards “puts Japanese whisky’s reputation at risk.”
For years, this not-so-secret secret stayed under the radar, but no longer. World-renowned critic and author Dave Broom published a call to action back in 2018. According to Broom, “brand Japan” is a victim of its success. Dwindling stocks of “true” Japanese whiskeys, especially aged stock, presented bottlers with a dilemma. Either acknowledge the contraction of their booming market, or find alternatives. Many chose the latter.
The result is a Wild West of Eastern whiskey, including an extremely liberal definition of the product itself.
The result is a Wild West of Eastern whiskey, including an extremely liberal definition of the product itself. Nikka Whisky’s international business development manager, Emiko Kaji, puts the problem into dire perspective. “The reality is that there is no clear definition of Japanese whisky which is applicable to all countries,” Kaji says, “and that the meaning of this word has therefore become quite wide and vague.”
His overarching concern is evident. “The situation we see today is the increase of many producers who are trying to find a loophole in order to benefit from the consumers’ thirst for Japanese whisky,” he notes. “We think this is very damaging for the category.”
With Japanese whisky’s reputation increasingly questioned, many believe it’s poised to crash. Industry leaders clearly indicate that without standards akin to Scotch, Irish, and even American whiskies, the worldwide Japanese whisky marketplace will suffer irreparable harm. Time will reveal which forces prevail, but for now, caveat emptor!