Jota Tanaka, master blender at Mt. Fuji Distillery (Photo by Mr. Roman Jehanno)
There are times in life when the gravitas of a certain situation, phenomena or experience is only fully realised after the fact. Times like last year, for instance, when the first ever legal standards defining ‘Japanese whisky’ were introduced by the Japan Spirit & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA). While it might have been an open secret amongst connoisseurs for years, the fact that not all whisky labelled ‘Japanese’ is necessarily Japanese in origin undoubtedly came as a big surprise to many consumers.
It’s important to note that the new labelling standards only apply to members of the JSLMA – which, admittedly, includes most of the country’s major whisky producers. Thus, while several household names have now publicly acknowledged that some of their products don’t comply with the new labelling standards and therefore cannot be called ‘Japanese whisky’, other, more exploitive, players will continue to eschew such transparency and embrace ambiguity.
Needless to say, the introduction of the new labelling standards caused many JSLMA members to think hard about their responses, portfolios and future plans. One such member was Mt. Fuji Distillery (previously known as Fuji Gotemba Distillery). Mt. Fuji has long practised the Japanese tradition of blending domestic and international whiskies. Indeed, such blends have been the mainstay of Japan’s domestic market since the advent of its whisky industry at the turn of the 20th century.
In recent years, Mt. Fuji, along with other producers such as Suntory and Nikka, have launched and marketed such products as ‘world blends’ overseas. However, against the same backdrop of increasing demand for transparency amongst international consumers and the introduction of the new labelling standards, both of which have undoubtedly influenced the rise of the ‘world blend’, Mt. Fuji spotted an opportunity almost entirely unique to the distillery.
Closing the manhole door on one of Mt. Fuji"s pot stills
“Until last year, we and other whisky producers in Japan had never defined what Japanese whisky should be,” says Jota Tanaka, Mt. Fuji’s master blender. “But because the rules changed, we needed to look back and define ourselves and what we can do.”
As it happens, Mt. Fuji is capable of doing a lot. It’s currently one of very few distilleries in Japan capable of producing both malt and grain whiskies on a single site, and the only one doing so using a combination of methods imported from international whisky-producing regions. And while a large proportion of its output is blended with international whisky, the distillery has been producing blends exclusively comprised of its own malt and grain whiskies for more than two decades now – ‘single blends’, if you will.
Regardless, the concept of ‘single blended’ whisky was something of an epiphany for Mt. Fuji. At the time, JSMLA rules dictated that the term ‘single’ could only be applied to single malt and single grain whisky, not blended. “We never really thought about the term because we never realised its significance,” says Jota. “Of course, we’ve always promoted our uniqueness as a distillery able to produce both malt and grain whisky – and not just one style of each but multiple, as components for blends – yet we were never allowed to promote the fact that we were effectively making ‘single blends’. ”
Mt. Fuji therefore contacted the JSLMA seeking recognition of the term ‘single blended’. It also entered discussions with fellow whisky distillers, many of whom were supportive of the proposal, before submitting a successful application to the JSLMA seeking an amendment to the rules. Thus, single blended Japanese whisky was officially born.
Checking one of Mt. Fuji"s column stills
While rare, the concept of single blended whisky isn’t entirely foreign. Ben Nevis Distillery in the Scottish Highlands used to operate a column still to produce grain whisky and was thus able to create single blends. So, too, was Lochside Distillery in Montrose before it was mothballed in 1992.
Loch Lomond is the most notable operational whisky distillery in Scotland producing what is technically single blended whisky, which it does at scale – and yet none of its bottles are labelled as such. That’s because in Scotland, as in Japan previously, the concept is not recognised by the industry’s trade body, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). At best, bottles of Scotch whisky labelled as single blends are regarded as mere curiosities from yesteryear, attracting only moderate interest when showing up at auction to fetch middling prices.
It’s more common in Ireland, and especially so in Canada, to find single distilleries producing both malt and grain whisky – but even where regulations might permit them to do so, such producers don’t rely on the term ‘single blended’ to market such liquid, ultimately because tradition dictates that they don’t have to.
The landscape is very different in Japan where, thanks to the introduction of the new labelling standards, transparency has never been more important. The list of Japanese whiskies which don’t meet the official definition is growing, and producers will continue to make such announcements until March 2024 when, if they haven’t changed what they’re putting inside what they’re putting on the outsides.
Jota Tanaka noses a sample
Then there’s Japan’s highly competitive corporate culture, which means whisky producers very rarely exchange stocks with each other (hence their traditional reliance on international whisky). This phenomenon, coupled with the new labelling standards, begs a poignant question: if there’s no trading, and Japanese whisky must now be entirely Japanese in origin, then who’s making truly Japanese blended whisky?
Granted, players like Suntory and Nikka both run their own grain and malt distilleries, and are thus capable of producing blended whiskies which are allowed to be labelled ‘Japanese’. But it’s not just its capacity to produce both grain and malt whisky at a single distillery which gives Mt. Fuji a competitive edge here – it’s the reputation the distillery has earned for the quality of the grain whisky it’s putting out.
Citing similarities with Scotland, Jota says: “The majority of people consider grain whisky to be light, lean and approachable, typically blended with more flavourful malt whisky – but our blends are not like that at all. Our grain whiskies are as important as our malt: “Of course, single malts have their characteristics, as do single grains, but on their own there are limitations in complexity, delicate balance, and harmony. We’re producing whiskies with characteristics that cannot be achieved by single malts or single grains by themselves.”
The view of Mount Fuji from its namesake distillery
Mt. Fuji currently produces three styles of grain whisky – light, medium and heavy – within which it is constantly experimenting in the pursuit of new flavour profiles. Factoring in variables such as cask selection and maturation, as well as its malt whiskies, the distillery exercises absolute control over an ostensibly infinite palette.
The company also recognises the role distillery character has to play in the context of single blends, which, according to Jota, doesn’t only refer to distillate character. “We undertake the full production process on site, from mashing through to bottling. That means our whiskies – malt and grain – are nurtured in a single environment and benefit from our collective care and knowhow. All single malts should have such character, and single grains as well, but no other distillery in Japan can produce blended whisky that so embodies its singular, unique character.”
Having been instrumental in gaining regulatory approval for the category, Mt. Fuji acknowledges that it now faces another significant challenge in educating promoters, distributors and consumers about single blended Japanese whisky. Critics might view the move as opportunistic – a means for Mt. Fuji to steal a march on the competition at a time of intense scrutiny for Japanese whisky, or perhaps a case of fortune favouring the big, not just the brave.
The FUJI 2022 Masterpiece single blended Japanese whisky
Yet it’s important to remember that without the collective support of other JSLMA members, the category of single blended whisky wouldn’t have got off the ground. Indeed, Mt. Fuji fully expects – encourages, even – other JSLMA members to follow suit in eventually launching their own single blends. After all, as Jota believes, the new category could increase interest in and demand for genuine Japanese whisky overall. “Our fellow distillers supported us because they saw an opportunity for themselves,” he says. “I believe this is a huge opportunity, because the single blended category makes Japanese whisky unique.”
And it’s not just domestic distilleries Jota wants to inspire. He hopes that what Mt. Fuji has achieved will stimulate change amongst international distillers capable of producing and marketing single blends. “I’m excited about the possibility of contributing to the prosperity of the global whisky industry,” he says. “I feel fortunate and privileged to be helping to grow that industry and to give something back for all that we have learned from it.”