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Monday, November 27, 2017

What is Japanese whisky? And does it matter?

another brilliant D4P photo masterwork, feel free to steal it!
In August, a respected online whisky writer went on a multi-day run complaining about the fractured state of Japanese whisky. He unleashed an interesting subject, but unfortunately — because rumor, hearsay and anecdotes are more available than facts — I was left feeling more perplexed about the entire picture than I was beforehand. Fortunately, other bloggers have since dug deeper into individual Japanese whisky products, helping bring some focus to a blurry subject.

Now I'm going to try to simplify the situation via an outline.

Here are the current types of Japanese whisky producers and their products:
  1. Japanese non-distiller producers (NDPs), similar to American NDPs, bottling whisky that was distilled in Japan by another company.
  2. Japanese NDPs bottling whisky that is a combination of Japanese and Scotch whisky, or entirely Scotch whisky, and
    1. labelling it "Japanese Whisky", or
    2. not labelling it "Japanese Whisky".
  3. Young distilleries
    1. bottling their own distillate
    2. bottling their distillate blended with Scotch whisky,
      1. labelling it "Japanese Whisky", or
      2. not labelling it "Japanese Whisky".
  4. Well-established distilleries
    1. bottling their own distillate
    2. bottling their distillate blended with Scotch whisky,
      1. labelling it "Japanese Whisky", or       conjecture?
      2. not labelling it "Japanese Whisky".
So. There are Japanese companies bottling blends of Japanese-distilled whisky and Scotch, as well as only Scotch whisky, and calling it "Japanese Whisky". Then there are some Japanese companies who are bottling the same, but not calling it "Japanese Whisky". And, apparently, there are still distilleries bottling their own stuff.

Though the Scotch Whisky Association can be a complete pain in the ass, and occasionally suspect in its intentions, it has attempted to iron out what Scotch whisky is through strict regulations. Because Japan doesn't have a similar organization, chaos can break out when their industry goes through a major transitional period, as it is doing now.

Keep in mind, much of the information regarding who does what in the Japanese whisky industry is based on the aforementioned rumor, hearsay and anecdotes. But if half of it is true, one begins to wonder, "What is Japanese Whisky?" If the rumors are mostly true, then how can we know if the long-established distilleries really are bottling 100% Japanese-distilled whisky? How do we know that Suntory's Hakushu isn't being boosted by the company's Laphroaig/Ardmore/Bowmore assets? What are we drinking?

Should this piss you off? That's up to you. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with mixing whiskies from around the world. In fact, I think it's a great idea, and an undiscovered country for whisky blenders. BUT, I do think it's crooked for a company to call its whisky "Japanese" when the stuff in the bottle is less than 100% Japanese-distilled. Said producers are banking on the idea of "Japanese" and are willing to hide the truth in order to do so. I hope companies instead promote the fact that there's Scotch in their whisky, because people still love Scotch. A lot. For real. Worldwide.

This week I'll be reviewing three whiskies from Nikka that may or may not have Scotch whisky in them. But none of these products have the word "Japanese" on their label, in kanji or English.

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