What constitutes authentic Japanese whisky

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Whisky fanatics and casual drinkers alike have fallen deeply in love with Japanese whisky for close to a decade now. Demand has skyrocketed to levels where the island nation’s largest whisky producers Suntory and Nikka have had to discontinue several long-running expressions and ramp up production at all their distilleries. Even craft whisky distilleries like Chichibu have had to expand operations after garnering international acclaim in recent years.

This has created an opportunity for businesses to unscrupulously cash in by selling fake Japanese whisky which is neither distilled nor matured locally. They prey on the lack of knowledge that buyers have along with the fervent demand right now. Even seasoned whisky fans can be deceived no thanks to the current lack of regulation in the land of the rising sun. Here are some things to look out for the next time you’re in Japan shopping for a bottle.

  1. Where is the bottling distilled and matured?

This is a sure-fire way to determine whether the expression you’re looking at is genuinely Japanese, especially for single malt or single grain Japanese whisky. Companies would import casks of whisky before bottling them locally. This allows them to skirt the law and claim that the particular expression is indeed a product of Japan. Compounding this problem would be the label’s text being intentionally vague in an attempt to both charm and frustrate you into a purchase.

Fortunately, whisky fans are both helpful and knowledgeable. A simple Google search will help you determine whether that bottling is genuinely Japanese or foreign whisky with a fancy label and (frankly) amateurish calligraphy on it. Industry stalwarts are also pushing back against these firms by being upfront with their own authentic bottlings. For example, Nikka’s Yoichi 15 Years Old specifically states that it is distilled and matured by the company in its Yoichi distillery.

  1. What’s the ABV

Japanese whisky has its roots in Scotch whisky. This translates into a minimum ABV of 40% when bottled and aging in a cask for three years at least, amongst other traits. Unlike Scotland however, Japan does not have strict rules or regulations regarding industry practices. This was what allowed the conundrum of fake Japanese whisky to occur in the first place.

Every authentic Japanese whisky bottling bears an ABV of 40% and above as a percentage below that is internationally considered liquor and not whisky. Suntory typically bottles its Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hibiki, and Chita lines at 43% ABV across all age statements whereas Nikka’s whiskies would tend to vary. Those ‘whiskies’ you see in Japanese convenience stores contained within giant PET bottles are definitely not authentic as these are diluted to below 40%, allowing for safe storage.

  1. Suss out the brand

Google-sensei and Logic-senpai will be your best bets here. If a brand is selling a 12-year-old single malt expression but was only granted a license to produce whisky in recent years, doesn’t that sound suspicious? Additionally, if a brand is selling an 18-year-old single malt but only finished constructing its distillery in recent years, the alarms in your head should be sounding.

You might also want to take note of whether a brand is selling gin as the spirit does not need any maturation time. New kids on the block are often selling either gin or ‘Japanese’ whisky while their current new-make spirit matures in order to generate revenue. Occasionally, they’ll offer both.

In closing

Authentic Japanese whisky is amazing and increasingly elusive in recent years. A single distillery produces multiple styles of whisky due to business rivalries preventing the tradition of cask swapping from taking place. Throw in the fact that brands are becoming increasingly experimental and it’s no wonder Nippon-style water of life has no faded from the consumer’s imagination.

Unfortunately, businesses will still attempt to unscrupulously market imported whisky as ‘Japanese’ to gain a quick buck. Although it’s mostly a tactic to tide them over while their own genuine stock matures, it still leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths due to the lack of honesty. Although brands are becoming increasingly transparent with their wares, you still have to be careful when shopping for a bottle and using these three tips will help you greatly.


Guest Correspondent:

Ebel Tang

Ebel is the founder and editor-in-chief at online whisky publication
Elixir [1]. Ever since he could (legally) drink, he fell in love with
the water of life. From blended whiskies that lubricated more than their
fair share of social gatherings to single grains that required a plane
and bullet train ride just to get a dram of, every glass truly has a
story to tell. Having written for a variety of media outlets in
Singapore over the years across a range of beats, Ebel now wants to
share his love for whisky with fans both young and young at heart.

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