Brace yourself: your Japanese whisky might not be totally Japanese

Photo via Getty Images/Wako Megumi

Brace yourself: your Japanese whisky might not be totally Japanese

Drinks

Brace yourself: your Japanese whisky might not be totally Japanese

If you’re spending your weekend driving from liquor store to liquor store, trying to stockpile as much Hibiki 17 as you can, you’re probably not alone. Acclaimed Japanese whisky producer Suntory has announced that it will be discontinuing two of its most loved – and most popular – aged whiskies, that particular Hibiki and the Hakushu 12-year. Why? Because they turned into bigger hits than Suntory anticipated, and the company is running out of its top-shelf aged booze.

Although Hakushu 12 will disappear later this month, and the Hibiki 17 will vanish in the early fall, it’s only temporary: Suntory’s CEO has said that the company should be able to replenish its whisky stocks within the next 10 years. (So go ahead and set a calendar alert for sometime in 2028). But the news that these two whiskies will be gone for a decade isn’t the biggest thing we’ve heard about Japanese whisky this week – because we’ve also just learned that Japanese whiskies AREN’T ALWAYS REALLY JAPANESE.

Japan doesn’t have any geographical indications for its whisky, and doesn’t have any legal requirements for what constitutes a whisky (or whiskey, or bourbon) the way that Scotland or the United States do. (For example, the Federal Standards of Identity for Bourbon stipulate that bourbon has to be at least 51% corn, it must spend at least three years in a charred oak barrel, and it also needs to be made in the United States). As a result, Japanese distilleries can import whisky from other countries – like Scotland – to add to their blends. The practice is often out of necessity, either because the distillery can’t produce enough booze on their own or because they need, say, a grain whisky to go with the malt whisky that they can make.

Or, as Forbes put it, “[Japanese] companies can do almost anything they want and still call it whisky.” For example, the Ben Nevis distillery in Fort William, Scotland is owned by Japan’s Nikka Whisky Distilling Co – so it ships its whisky halfway around the world so it can be used in “Japanese” blended whiskies produced 5,700 miles away. And, as Whisky Advocate explains, when you see the words “Pure Malt” on the label of a Japanese whisky – like Nikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt – it means that it contains 100% malted barley that came from more than one distillery.

“There is nothing wrong with mixing scotch with whiskies of different origin as long as the labeling of such products does not mislead consumers into believing the product is scotch,”  Rosemary Gallagher, a spokesperson for the Scotch Whisky Association said. “There is no official definition of whisky in Japan that we know of.”

It helps that Japanese whiskies have a similar distillation process to their Scotch counterparts, because one of the industry’s founders studied the craft in Scotland. In 1918, Masataka Taketsuru, the son of a sake brewer, went to to Scotland to learn as much from the Scots as he could. He enrolled at the University of Glasgow to study chemistry, worked as an apprentice at several distilleries and, after a couple of years, both his brain and his notebooks had to be at capacity. He returned to Japan and worked with Shinjiro Torii to open the country’s first distillery in the Osaka Prefecture. Several years later, he left to start his own. (Torii’s distillery, the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, is now just known as Suntory, and Taketsuru founded what would become Nikka.)

So yeah, as a result, Japanese whiskies tend to be double-distilled, may use peat and often use malted barley. (Aye laddie, guess where that malted barley comes from?) Obviously there are differences between the two, including the fact that Japanese distilleries flat-out refuse to share whisky stocks or blends with each other. As the Spirits Business explains, that requires each distillery to be self-sufficient, and can put a greater strain on supplies that are disappearing more quickly than anyone expected.

Just don’t expect those struggles to make these brands start cooperating with each other. “I couldn’t imagine this,” Sakuma Tadashi, Nikka’s chief blender, said. “I would never say ‘never,’ but it’s difficult to imagine.” And Emiko Kaji, the international business development manager at Nikka’s parent company, Asahi, basically said ‘Not only no, but hell no.’

“Our founder [Masataka Taketsuru] went to Scotland and worked for Suntory, and then became independent,” he told the Spirits Business. “We have been competing with each other for a long time. There’s more of a community in Scotch whisky, but we are competitors.”

Sooooo…is it 2028 yet?

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