Japanese Whisky

When we buy Scotch, Irish or American whisk(e)y, we know what we are getting . These nations have government agencies which regulate how whisky is labeled and sold – so if something says “Scotch”, we know that it has been totally distilled and aged in Scotland for at least 3 years. If it says “Irish Whiskey” then we know it has been totally distilled and aged in Ireland for at least 3 years. If it says “Straight Bourbon” or “Straight Rye” then we know it has been totally distilled and aged in the USA for at least 2 years (and at least 4 years, if no further age info is indicated on the label.)

But not all countries have official rules – or even if they do, the rules aren’t enforced. Some of the so-called “whiskey” sold in Egypt, China and India are examples of this.

In recent years Japanese Whisky has developed a reputation for being among the best whisky in the world. Many people part with large sums of money for a bottle, and many reviews are stunning. But is all this attention deserved, or are people falling into groupthink, and just convincing themselves that whatever they buy is fantastic? And is all Japanese whisky solely made in Japan?

Recent reports indicate that contrary to popular belief, most Japanese whisky hasn’t even been distilled and aged in Japan at all! Rather, it appears as if much has been purchased from elsewhere, and added to undisclosed amounts of Japanese-made product, and then sold as if it is all-Japanese.

Japanese Whisky Yamazaki CC0 Creative Commons by CEGOH
Photo by Jason Gohm Singapore, CC0 Creative Commons

Thijs Klaverstijn recently wrote Japanese Whisky Rules: There are none , in which he writes

Up until the 1960s, all Japanese blended whiskies were made with blending alcohol—a neutral spirit which could be made from anything… Masataka Taketsuru was the first to put this practice to a halt, when he bought a Scottish Coffey still in 1964…. The move by Taketsuru set into motion the elimination of blending alcohol… However, while blending alcohol is no longer being used, there’s no rule that keeps Japanese producers from incorporating neutral spirit in their products… Tax figures show that the import value of bulk blended Scotch whisky to Japan almost quadrupled from 2014 to 2015… Japan also imported more bulk blended malt and blended grain whisky from Scotland. It is impossible to find out exactly how it was used, but some of it will end up (or has ended up) in Japanese whisky.

Some of us found this hard to believe – after all, folks are spending hundreds of dollars on Japanese whiskys, and there’s no way that any of us could succumb to groupthink and the effects of advertising, right? But this seems to be spot-on.

I’m quite interested in this – what indeed are the official Japanese regulations on what they call whiskey,  what they can add to whiskey, on whether or not blends must be noted on the label? And how much are these rules actually enforced, if at all?

This article seems to expose the fact that no Japanese whisky, until now, has been purely made in Japan. Is the article incorrect? What do the other Japanese whisky sellers say in response?

Japan’s first whisky brewed exclusively from domestically grown malt and corn has begun production here. Kochi University Faculty of Agriculture and Marine Sciences lecturer Kazutoshi Hamada and his students are brewing the purely Japanese whisky using local yellow corn “jikibi” and barley raised in the town of Otoyo, Kochi Prefecture. According to the Tokyo-based Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association, domestically brewed whisky is made from almost entirely imported ingredients, and it has reportedly never heard of any 100-percent-Japanese brews.

Kochi university brews Japan’s first purely domestic whisky, The Mainichi

How do we even know that it is that good to begin with? I’ve often seen folks flat-out convince themselves that something is great, or “the best ever”, because they were told ahead of time that “This is rare, and expensive, and great!” Yet when people taste the same whisky in a blind taste test, they often rate it lower, and rate more common and affordable whiskeys higher. How many people reading this article have rated Japanese whiskys as significantly higher than other whiskys in a blind taste test?

There are some groups that we should direct questions to:

The Japan Wine and Spirits Importers’ Association was founded in April 1959 for the purpose of promoting the diffusion of imported wines and spirits in Japan, expanding market demand for imported wines and spirits and supporting and facilitating import business. At present, the Association is active with a membership of 31 companies engaged in business related to imported wines and spirits.”


We also note

Brewers Association of Japan (BAJ) and Japan Spirits & Liquor Makers Association (JSLMA) were both founded in 1953 and have the status of a Specially Approved Non-Profit Organization in accordance with, and under the terms of, the Liquor Industry Association Act. The BAJ is composed of the five co-sponsoring companies: Asahi, Kirin, Orion, Sapporo, and Suntory. The JSLMA is composed of 88 domestic companies producing western style spirits, such as whisky, brandy, gin, vodka and rum and spirits-based liquors, as defined by the Alcohol Tax Law. The common objectives of the BAJ and JSLMA are:
-To ensure compliance with, and appropriate application of, the Fair Competition Code.
-To carry out promotion activities on issues such as discouraging underage drinking, moderate consumption of alcohol, and disposal / recycling of containers.
-To engage in technical activities such as funding and coordinating research into materials, quality, food hygiene and environmental concerns.
-To facilitate contact with overseas beverage alcohol companies and related bodies.
-To act as a contact point for inquiries from consumers on beverage alcohol.


More sources

Japanese Whisky (Wikipedia article)

Japanese Whisky Rules: There are none. By by Thijs Klaverstijn

Not all ‘Japanese Whisky’ is Japanese Whisky, Dave Broom

Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit (Google Books excerpt)

pointing finger

Here you can check out our reviews of  bourbonScotch,  Irish whiskey,  Canadian whiskey,  ryes or flavored whiskys. And feel free to learn more about me, Distilled Sunshine.



Some related articles

The Japanese Whisky Review  Nonjatta.com

Flaviar Alcohol Professor The Whiskey Lady

Sipdark Whiskyflavour.com Caskstore.com  Who is the real godfather of Japanese whisky? Kildares Pub WC

Is it really made in Japan?

Differences between Scotch and Japanese whiskey

A review of 2 whiskeys

Suntory Toki Japanese whiskey

Book review about Japanese whiskey

Yamakazi 12 year old

Hibiki Harmony

Yamakazi 18

Ohishi Sherry Cask Japanese Whisky Review

Nikka Coffey grain


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