A Spirits Critic Grapples With the Opacity of Label Regulations

Japanese whisky in glass on wood bartop

Earlier this year, I carefully selected four bottles to spotlight in a feature on Japanese whisky slated for our May 2021 issue. Within a month, I had begun to question every choice.

The liquid in the bottles hadn’t changed. They were still delicious, relatively affordable and accessible, the main criteria for the list. I had vetted each to ensure they were from different regions and represented a variety of flavor profiles and production styles.

Yet, here’s what had changed: the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association released new labeling standards for its association members mid-February, slated to go into effect April 1, 2021. As I began to peel back the layers of the new rules, I realized that two of the four bottles I had selected may no longer be labeled as Japanese whisky. This meant half of the bottles in the line-up were now at odds with the rest.

Japan Ushers in a New Wave of Whisky

Please pause to insert your own colorful swear words here. I guarantee they will be no worse than what flew out of my mouth.

The first bottle impacted was Nikka Days, which I had selected for its bright honey and stone fruit flavors, mixability and gentle price point. It now qualifies as a “blended whisky,” rather than “Japanese whisky,” because it contains imported grain whisky in addition to those from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries.

Small bottle of Nikka Days on table with dramatic sunlight and shadow
Nikka Days, now technically a blended, rather than Japanese, whisky / Photo by Alanna Hale

The second pick, a sherry cask-finished whiskey from Ohishi, was also out, because it’s distilled from rice, not malted barley. Going in, I knew that spotlighting a rice whiskey was likely to ruffle feathers among purists. But I never imagined that some would clamor for the bottle to be relabeled as shochu rather than whisky.

Though it was too late to change the bottles in our print edition—the photos and layout were already finalized—some last-minute wordsmithing allowed the text to reflect the new requirements, at least.

Crisis averted, I suppose. However, I couldn’t help but wonder, if it’s this difficult for industry experts to unravel the new standards, how are consumers supposed to manage?

Transparency has long been an issue for the spirits industry. The language that appears on labels is no accident; many of those curious phrases are the result of regulations instituted to knock down bad actors and false claims.

How to Read a Spirits Label, from A to Z

In the late 1800s, Kentucky distillers were undercut by nefarious producers that used neutral spirits, like vodka, riddled with artificial flavors and additives to stretch the whiskey, ranging from glycerine and caramel coloring to wood chips and formaldehyde. Amid pressure from Kentucky distillers, the federal government instituted bottled-in-bond as a standard designation. The term remains on labels today.

New issues crop up all the time. The language on modern-day labels often obscures where or how products are made. Exactly how old is that aged rum? Was a whiskey actually distilled by the entity whose name is on the label, or just bottled there? How small is that “small batch” gin, or how “limited” is that “limited edition” brandy? Vague words like “ultrapremium,” “handcrafted,” or “luxury” provide little concrete information about the liquid.

Knowing just how opaque and slippery wording on labels can be, I understand why Japan’s whisky producers would seek to clarify what’s in their bottles.

Despite my personal fire drill over the labeling changes, I stand behind the bottles in our story. Some of them may no longer be technically defined as Japanese whiskies, but they’re still influenced by that tradition. And more importantly, they’re good.

Published on April 12, 2021
Topics: Viewpoint