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SB Voices: It’s time for Japanese whisky to be braver

Suntory’s new World Whisky Ao is a step in the right direction, but, Amy Hopkins argues, it’s time for bolder, braver moves to give consumers a truer understanding of Japanese whisky.

Leap of faith: Japanese whisky producers need to take brave steps

One of the highlights of my career as a drinks journalist so far is a trip I took to Japan in 2016. I was there to judge a cocktail competition, but arrived a few days early to travel to a number of distilleries and meet the people behind the brands. It was a fascinating and enlightening fortnight, and one I’ll always remember well.

Before I headed east, I felt I had a decent grasp of the country’s whisky industry in terms of its stock shortages and price hikes, stemming from its booming popularity, which continues to this day. But on reflection, it was clear that as a relative newcomer to the world of drinks, the unique complexities of the Japanese whisky industry had thus far eluded me.

Walking around some of the larger facilities I observed stills of all shapes and sizes – quite different to the Scotch whisky distilleries I had toured where, usually, still houses contained a uniform set of equipment built to create a consistent house style. With Japanese whisky so inspired by Scotch, why are its still houses so different? I was told this was because, unlike Scotch, there is no culture of buying or swapping whisky stocks to create blends. In addition to the unexpected rise in international and domestic demand for Japanese whisky, this competitive and closed ethos has surely augmented stock constraints.

To my even greater surprise, I was told, quite casually, that to remedy shortages, many producers – even the big names – import whiskies from abroad to blend with their own liquid and bottle as ‘Japanese whisky’. Since industry regulations are loose and there is no Japanese whisky GI or equivalent, such practice is legal, and is even embraced as a core part of the industry. “It is one of the possible ways to create whisky with complex and interesting flavours,” one brand representative told me. Another producer said that since blends are more affordable for consumers, new malt whisky distilleries are left with no choice but to buy grain whisky from abroad due to an absent domestic third party market.

For a long time, Japanese whisky was a niche product on the international market – something for educated drinkers and not widely accessible or understood. Now that it has assumed mass appeal, and at a time when consumers demand optimal transparency, uncomfortable questions are being asked.

Step in the right direction

Many industry stakeholders have called for the creation of stricter regulations for Japanese whisky, but opinion is divided over the likelihood of such action being agreed and activated. In the meantime, what is the solution to ensure consumer trust is not lost? For many, the answer is in labelling and truthful product descriptions, and Suntory’s new World Whisky Ao was largely seen as a step in the right direction.

Suntory World Whisky Ao is a blend of five whiskies from around the world

The product is a made using liquid from Irish, Scotch, American, Canadian and Japanese distilleries. Brand owner Beam Suntory owns distilleries in each of these countries, but the exact origin of the liquid used has not been confirmed. It has gained a lot of attention from the trade and consumers, and I agree it is certainly a smart move in the face of stock restraints and a growing interest in so-called ‘hybrid’ products that defy traditional categorisation. But does it signify transparency?

In a way, yes – it identifies itself as a blend of whisky made with liquid distilled and aged around the world. It has also, consciously or inadvertently, sparked more conversations about transparency in Japanese whisky, and drawn attention to the fact that many ‘Japanese whiskies’ are, indeed, also technically ‘world whiskies’.

But, Ao is branded as ‘world whisky’ that contains Japanese whisky, not a ‘Japanese whisky’ that contains world whisky. Now, I don’t know if Suntory relies on imported whisky to bulk out its domestic supplies, but transparency would be exponentially aided if more brands that do so label their products accordingly. A very small number of producers, most notably Chichibu, have made such moves ­– Ichiro’s Malt and Grain lists the US, Canada, Ireland and Scotland as the origins of some of the liquid used in its final blend.

It’s an understandable risk for Japanese whiskies to explain their complexity is often derived from international sources, but the long-term benefit of aiding consumer understanding will surely make it a risk worth taking.

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