A tip for my friends in Virginia — and whisky lovers everywhere. I made a stop at the local ABC store today and noticed that they had bottles of Hatozaki Whisky on the shelf. Cool, you might be thinking! A new Japanese whisky to try. Not so fast.
Hatozaki Whisky is a product of the Kaikyo Distillery, located in Hyōgo Prefecture and owned by the AKASHI-TAI Sake brewery. The whisky they are currently bottling and selling, however, is NOT Japanese whisky in the way that you might think.
In other words, this whisky was not distilled in Japan. As has become common practice with a lot of the new “Japanese Whisky” companies that have emerged in the last few years, they do not have their own whisky to sell. Instead they buy whisky in bulk from Scotland and Canada, bottle it, slap their own label with some kanji on it, and sell it to foreigners as Japanese Whisky.
They can’t legally sell it in Japan. But other than that, the Japanese laws regarding whisky labeling are very vague and they permit a spirit like this one to be sold in foreign markets as if it were real Japanese whisky. The U.S. has its own laws regarding the labeling of spirits. But those mostly apply to booze produced in the U.S. There are strict laws regarding what can legally be sold as “bourbon,” for example. But when it comes to imports, the usual practice is to follow the rules of the country of origin.
The Kaikyo Distillery does actually exist and they are apparently distilling their own whisky. Which is great news! Many of these Potemkin distilleries only have a bottling plant and nothing else. Even so, it will be at least a few more years before we see Hatozaki Whisky for sale that was actually distilled by them.
Does this mean the whisky is bad? No, of course not. It could be excellent for all I know. According to the company, they are blending various stocks of whisky together to achieve the flavor profile they want for their product. There might even be a tiny bit of Japanese whisky some other company made in the mix. But it’s still not real Japanese whisky and it’s HIGHLY unlikely it’s worth the money you’d have to pay for it.
You’d never know anything of this if you read the bottle’s label or visited the company’s website. The information isn’t exactly secret — but they aren’t going out of their way to tell anyone either. In fact, what they’re trying to do is mislead consumers into buying something that they’re not really getting.
There is a movement afoot in Japan to change their rules regarding what can and can’t be labeled as Japanese whisky. In addition to misleading the public, many are concerned that these ersatz products will taint the reputation of Japanese whisky — which has been built over decades and is high for a reason.
Let’s hope change is coming soon.