Even during COVID-19, the popularity of Japanese whisky is unstoppable. Looking over export statistics from January to July, the yen value of domestic whisky has taken the #1 position, exceeding the value of sake. It's growth of 17.1% YoY. However, at liquor stores and grocery stores outside of Japan, "Japanese whisky" that you've never seen before lines the shelves. Are they really Japanese whisky? To avoid betraying these overseas fans of Japanese whisky, hasn't the time finally come to decide on a standard for Japanese whisky?
Text: Editing Department, Mamoru Tsuchiya
Photos: Ayumi Fujita
This article originally appeared in Japanese in Whisky Galore Vol.23 / December 2020.
The Japanese Whisky Standard
Before reading the roundtable report, let's take a look at the actual text that defines whisky in Japan's liquor tax law.
- Distillate of alcoholic wash created via the fermentation of a saccharified substance made of malted grain and water. (Distillation of the wash must produce an alcohol concentration of 95% or less.)
- Distillate of alcoholic wash created via the fermentation of saccharified grain created via malting grain and water. (Distillation of the wash must produce an alcohol concentration of 95% or less.)
- Liquor created by adding alcohol, spirits, flavoring, coloring, and/or water to #1 or #2 (#1 or #2 must comprise 10% or more of the liquor created after adding alcohol, spirits, or flavorings)
How about it. It's pretty cryptic text, and it's unlikely that many people reading it would be able to interpret it immediately. Put simply, you could say #1 refers to malt whisky, and #2 refers to grain whisky. But it says nothing about the method of saccharification, the method of fermentation, the distilling equipment, and most embarrassingly, nothing about maturation nor the material used for casks. Going further, it says nothing about the minimum abv when bottling. However, the biggest problem with this liquor tax law is that it has absolutely no requirements for the place of origin.
This is purely a definition needed for taxation of whisky in Japan, and it's not a law that codifies Japanese whisky. That means that as long as the tax on it is paid, it doesn't matter what country it's from, and it's not a problem to put a label that says "Japanese" on a bottle that contains Scotch, then sell it. It is not in any way intended to safeguard/develop domestic whisky, or protect consumers.
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Mamoru Tsuchiya is Japan’s foremost whisky critic. He is the Representative Director of the Japan Whisky Research Centre, and was named one of the “World’s Best Five Whisky Writers” by Highland Distillers in 1998. He served as the whisky historian for NHK’s Massan and he has published several books such as The Complete Guide to Single Malt Whisky, Taketsuru’s Life and Whisky, and The Literacy of Whisky. He is the editor of the bimonthly Whisky Galore, Japan’s only print whisky magazine.