A lesson on what is real Japanese whisky and what is not from Liquor Museum Bar, Kyoto, Japan

A Lesson On Real Japanese Whisky from Kyoto, Japan: New Japanese Guidelines

Liquor Museum Bar, Kyoto, Japan. Japanese whisky for sale sign
1,500 Japanese Yen equals $10.22 dollars @Liquor Museum Bar, Kyoto, Japan.

This is a story about what is real Japanese whisky, and what is not. Lately, Japan has become a popular destination for American tourists, and the favorable exchange rate means a growing number of Japanese whisky aficionados are headed there to purchase some exceptional bottles of Japanese whisky on discount. Buyer beware: if you are considering a trip to Japan, here is an important lesson on real Japanese whisky learned at the Liquor Museum Bar in Kyoto, and the new brand guidelines taking effect in 2024.

The new guidelines set forth by the Japanese Spirits and Liqueurs Association means the definition of what is considered real Japanese whisky has officially changed ––and that has some major distillers nervous. 

What is Real Japanese Whisky? A Battle For The Hearts, Minds and Wallets of American Tourists

While Google translating a cocktail menu at the Liquor Museum Bar in Kyoto, I came across this super-cool sounding name. An expression I had never come across stateside. The Japanese whisky is called Super Nikka Rare Old. Not your typical sounding Japanese whisky. Perhaps a wee bit over the top, but a name that might catch fire back home in Harlem. Or, with some Brooklyn hipsters feeling super. Either way, thanks to the great exchange rate there would be no regrets.

“Barman, please pour me a Super Nikka. Water back.”

Super Nikka, Rare Old Whisky can no longer call itself "Japanese whisky"

A quick search for the brand online brought me to this.., “Wait, what?”

Super Nikka Rare Old whisky is not real Japanese whisky, according to their own website

Respect to Nikka distillery for being upfront about Super Nikka’s less-than-real Japanese whisky status. Truly honorable. A brief chat with a few Japanese whisky makers and the reason became clear: The liquid in a bottle of Super Nikka whisky was not from Japan.

This is not a dig on Nikka Distillery, owned by Asahi Beers. Nikka has an incredible backstory and makes many great Japanese whiskies. If you are not familiar with the patriarchs of Japanese history and the founder of Nikka Distillery, Taketsura Masataka, I encourage you to learn moreThis is about what it means to be a real Japanese whisky.

World whisky generally refers to whisky produced in Scotland but bottled and sometimes blended with other whiskies in Japan, then exported as “Japanese whisky”. 

But if it says “made in Japan”, how would you know? The fact is you may not. 

It turns out that “rare expensive” imported bottle of Japanese whisky you bought may not contain any whisky from Japan at all. It is important to do you research. 

Producers have been getting away with importing whisky from anywhere in the world, bottling it in Japan and labeling it “Japanese whisky” for quite some time. To be fair, it is not all their fault. The notion that Japanese whisky must be made like Scotch whisky continues to spur debate among real Japanese whisky purists. Learn more. 

Super Nikka Rare Old did not make the suite case, but it did provide a teachable moment. A real world lesson in what can no longer be labelled Japanese whisky. Though not an official Japanese government body, the new guidelines put forth by the Japanese Spirits & Liqueurs Association is a good start. These new regulations will take effect beginning 2024, a move revelers of Japanese whisky can certainly appreciate. 

Rest assured custom officials are having a field day confiscating undeclared bottles of Japanese whisky at U.S. airports. The one I encountered was certainly quick in addressing any of my undeclared Japanese whisky intentions. 

“Did you bring back any liquor back from Japan, Sir?” 

“No, Sir. I did not:-).”  

There are a growing number of American travelers taking advantage of the great exchange rate, picking up bottles of Japanese whisky on steep discount during their stay. If you would like to join our fully immersive Japanese whisky tour conducted by one of our English-speaking Japanese whisky experts, contacts us. Tours are fully customized for stays in in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo.



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