What makes a Japanese Whisky a Japanese Whisky?
& a Bourbon a Bourbon & a Rye a Rye, etc
Hey, I’m Rusty. Welcome to our weekly newsletter, sharing the startup journey of Kamui Whisky. Each week Casey or I will share a story as we set up a craft whisky distillery on a remote, volcanic island in the most northern part of Japan.
I get a lot of questions from readers, friends, and people in general on what makes a Japanese Whisky, a Japanese Whisky? And how is that different from Scotch? Or whats the difference between Whiskey and Whisky? What’s up with the ‘e’? What’s your favorite whiskey; Jameson or Jack? (a few of you should have eye-rolled on that one) But you get it, I end up talking a lot about whisky.
As we share how we are developing the flavor for Kamui Whisky, I thought it would be a good time to discuss all the different types of whiskys and the requirements we follow to make Japanese Whisky. This will lay the foundation for later discussions on grains, yeast, barrel selection, and more in future articles.
Now, I’m going to give you a broad overview. You can go down many rabbit holes in each of these different types of whiskies - Scotch with its Highlands, Lowlands, Islays, etc… Bourbon with its Kentucky, Tennessee, all the awesome craft distillery Bourbons, et al. I encourage you to explore all of those, through taste of course. They’re all fun journeys in their own way.
Whisky vs Whiskey
First, lets look at the term Whisky vs Whiskey.
Most of Europe, Asia, and, generally, the rest of the World use the traditional Whisky spelling, sans ‘e’. While the United States and Ireland add the ‘e’. The history on this is very interesting. This Forbes article explains it well: Is It Whisky Or Whiskey And Why It Matters.
Here’s a video I made that breaks it down quickly:
Even though we are provided with some guidelines, and guesses as to where the alcohol originates from, based on if they use the ‘e’ or not; none of it is set in stone. A distillery in Colorado could open tomorrow and label themselves a Whisky while another distiller in Scotland could call themselves a Whiskey. So, yea, make your best guess.
What is Whisky?
Whisky is created by distilling fermented grains. Archeological evidence of the whisky making process can be traced back as far as ancient Mesopotamia. Eventually, this method of creating alcohol found its way into European monasteries. It arrived in Scotland and Ireland sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries, and became beloved by the royals ruling the British Isles. Grapes were not readily available in Scotland, which led locals to focus on perfecting the art of distilling what they had in abundance, grain.1
The main distinction between American Whiskey and European Whisky, besides the ‘e’, is that American Whiskey is mostly aged in new, charred oak barrels while most European Whiskies are aged in used barrels, often American Whiskey and Bourbon barrels.
I have some details below on what makes a what, a what, but, I think, more importantly, the main take-away should be:
anybody can call themselves a whisky or whiskey. But if a company is labeling themselves as a Bourbon or a Scotch, or some other specific classification, they will be adhering to the the below requirements during their process.
Let’s get into it.
Generally speaking, American Whiskey is sweeter, less smoky, and less peaty than it’s European counterparts.
Must be made in the United States
Must have at least 51% corn in its mash
Must be distilled to no more than 160 proof
Must be higher than 125 proof when barrelled
Must be aged in new, charred oak barrels
Must be bottled at least 80 proof
Nothing can be added that might enhance the whiskey’s flavor, add any sweetness or alter it’s color
Nothing can be added at bottling except water
May be labeled as ‘Straight Bourbon’ if aged in new, charred barrels for a minimum of 2 years
All the requirements of a Bourbon plus
Must be produced in the State of Kentucky
All the requirements of a Bourbon plus
Must be produced in the state of Tennessee
Must be filtered through sugar maple charcoal (Lincoln County Process), before it is aged
Must have at least 51% Rye in its mash
Must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, if produced in the United States
Must be distilled to no more than 80% abv (alcohol by volume)
Must have at least 51% Wheat in its mash
May be labeled as ‘Straight Wheat Whiskey’ if aged in new, charred barrels for a minimum of 2 years
Must have at least 80% Corn in its mash
American Single Malt
Single Malt means, quite simply, that the whiskey is made with only one grain. For example, 100% Barley, or 100% Wheat, or 100% Corn. However, it doesn’t mean that there is only one grain in the mash; a Barley mash could be composed of 2 or 3 different types of Barley grains.
Currently the fastest growing category in the United States
Must be produced from malt, grain, and barley and distilled, aged, and bottled in Ireland
Must be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of 3 years
Traditionally, distilled in a copper pot still
Irish Whiskey requirements plus
Must be made completely from malted barley in a single distillery
Irish Whiskey requirements plus
Be comprised of a mix of various whiskeys that can come from different grains and different finishes. The distiller is trying to hit a specific taste profile using a blend of different flavors as ingredients. All the ingredients will come from Ireland.
Most popular; makes up 90% of all Irish Whiskey production
Those are your main categories for Whiskeys. Now let’s jump into the Whiskys.
Must be distilled, aged, and bottled in Scotland
Must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of 3 years
Receives its smoky character from peat, which is used to dry out the malted barley
Made exclusively with malted barley, water, and yeast
Must be produced and aged in Canada
Must have a minimum of 40% abv
Must be aged for at least 3 years in wooden barrels no larger than 700 liters (185 gallons)
Japanese Whisky is interesting because, up until April 1, 2021 (yes, 1 month ago) there were no regulations or rules on what could or could not be labeled as a Japanese Whisky. Somebody could literally buy whisky in Kansas, blend it with another whisky from Oregon, slap a Japanese Whisky label on it, and sell it. There was nothing in place to regulate against that type of funny business.
However, Japan finally got up to speed and have now implemented requirements, which pretty much mimic Scotch and Irish Whiskey. In short, everything needs to be produced in Japan to be called a Japanese Whisky.
The new requirements in order to be labeled a Japanese Whisky;
Raw ingredients must be limited to malted grains, other cereal grains, and water extracted in Japan
Saccharification, fermentation, and distillation must be carried out at a distillery in Japan
Alcohol content at the time of distillation must be less than 95%
The distilled product must be poured into wooden casks not exceeding a capacity of 700 liters (185 gallons) and matured in Japan for a period of at least 3 years
Bottling must take place only in Japan, with alcoholic strength of at least 40%
Plain caramel coloring can be used
Kotaku has a great article on this here.
Fortunately, all the new guidelines Japan recently implemented were already part of Casey and my simplistic vision of using Risihiri’s natural resources to create a whisky that tells the unique story of Rishiri to the World (through drunkenness,I added this, Casey may edit out) [Editor’s note: Casey left it in]
Now, all we have to do is grab all the unique ingredients the island has to offer, and make an inspiring Japanese Whisky out of them.