Saturday, July 23, 2011

La Maison says rival importer's drinks could harm Japanese whisky's image

Akashi blended whisky

Update 28.7.2011: Eigashima and LWdM released statements saying the Akashi blend was in line with EU regulations.

The Paris-based whisky importer La Maison du Whisky has piled into the controversy over the Akashi blended whisky imported to Europe by its rival Les Whiskies du Monde.

Nonjatta reported at the end of June that the Akashi blend was, according to its makers, made with 66 per cent non-grain spirit.

Nick Sikorski at La Maison du Whisky commented in an email to Nonjatta this week that the whisky could not legally be called whisky in Europe and that Les Whiskies du Monde might be harming the reputation of Japanese whisky by importing it.

"We are worried that indiscriminate product selection, and failure to respect the relevant legislation, can only harm the image of Japanese whisky, an image that we (and our European and Japanese partners) have worked hard to bolster," he said.

"The real problem with this whisky from the point of view of La Maison du Whisky and our partners at Nikka and Suntory is quite simply that this kind of alcohol cannot legally be called whisky in Europe. It may be whisky in Japan, but EU legislation insists that all whisky be made from cereals (and cereals alone), and aged in oak for a minimum of three years. Quite simply, this was obviously not the case for this particular blend, and that is why we object to it being sold in the EU as whisky," Sikorski said.

He said his own discussions with Eigashima, the maker of the whisky, prior to Nonjatta's article had indicated similar ingredients to those revealed by Eigashima President Mikio Hiraishi in an email to Nonjatta.

The use of non-grain spirit in the whisky was, Sikorski said, no surprise to anyone with knowledge of the Japanese alcohol industry: "Sugar-cane spirit--be it derived directly from sugar-cane juice, or indirectly from molasses--is regularly used in the Japanese alcohol industry, in particular in liqueurs, but also in sake of the honjozo, non-junmai variety. So, I wasn't particularly surprised to learn that it figured in this particular whisky."

Sikorski gave further details of his understanding of the storage and origin of whisky included in the blend. Nonjatta has not been able to get confirmation of these details from the maker or importer.

He said there was no issue with Eigashima itself, which he said had always been open about the content of the blend. "There is nothing wrong with his whisky from the point of view of Japanese legislation and it was undoubtedly created with the domestic market in mind," he said. "The 8-year-old and 12-year-old single malts from Eigashima are, to my knowledge, perfectly sound whiskies and we have no objection to them. We even imported the last of the first batch of 8 year old into France last year (as any visitors to the Number One Drinks stand at Whisky Live Paris will surely testify)."

But he said importing the Akashi blend raised very serious issues not only for Les Whiskies du Monde but for the whole Japanese whisky scene outside of Japan.

"If Japanese whisky currently enjoys such a high reputation in the West, it is in part due to very careful work carried out by the main importers: Suntory, Number One Drinks and ourselves at LMDW working for Nikka. If most people think that all Japanese whisky is inherently of very high quality, we have known for some time that that is not always the case, that there exists in Japan average and sometimes even plain bad whisky as indeed there does everywhere else.

"Concentrating on high-quality--and, of course, legal--products requires hard work, dedication and a very good knowledge of local customs and manufacturing methods. While we have no objection to other companies bringing in other Japanese whiskies, we are worried that indiscriminate product selection, and failure to respect the relevant legislation, can only harm the image of Japanese whisky, an image that we (and our European and Japanese partners) have worked hard to bolster," Sikorski said.

Nonjatta has been corresponding with Arnaud Pontoizeau of Les Whiskies du Monde since June 20 on the issue of the content of the Asahi blend. He was asked to comment on La Maison's statement, but he said he could not do so at this stage. We have made clear to him that we are very eager to tell both sides of this issue, and will give full coverage to any comments Les Whiskies wants to make to put this matter straight.

Current European rules define whisky as "a spirit drink produced exclusively by:
(i) distillation of a mash made from malted cereals with or without whole grains of other cereals, which has been:
— saccharified by the diastase of the malt contained therein, with or without other natural enzymes,
— fermented by the action of yeast;
(ii) one or more distillations at less than 94,8 % vol., so that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used,
(iii) maturation of the final distillate for at least three years in wooden casks not exceeding 700 litres capacity.
The final distillate, to which only water and plain caramel (for colouring) may be added, retains its colour, aroma and taste derived from the production process referred to in points (i), (ii) and (iii).
(b) The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of whisky or whiskey shall be 40 %.
(c) No addition of alcohol as defined in Annex I(5), diluted or not, shall take place.
(d) Whisky or whiskey shall not be sweetened or flavoured, nor contain any additives other than plain caramel used for colouring."

The rules say that spirits described as "blended" must combine: "two or more spirit drinks of the same category, distinguished only by minor differences in composition due to one or more of the following factors:
(a) the method of preparation;
(b) the stills employed;
(c) the period of maturation or ageing;
(d) the geographical area of production.
The spirit drink so produced shall be of the same category of spirit drink as the original spirit drinks before blending."


Samuel said...

They got a legal point, there is no arguing with that. I disagree with the rest of the statement. The only thing that might hurt the reputation of Japanese whisky is bad liquor, and this one is clearly not. I will "import" my own bottles for sure. LWM ought to call it Uisukii, and case closed.

Anonymous said...

Although there may be a point here, it seems to me LMDW and others are just butt-hurt about a new company moving into their turf. The reality is that only aficionados and whisky anoraks are going to know about this whisky or know where to purchase it in the first place. I have no sympathy for LMDW on this issue, and competition is definitely needed in this sector (don't get me started on their customer service). If one was to get pedantic about all of this then maybe they should also be concerned with non-EU regulation bottle sizes and paying the appropriate local duty/taxes when shipping within the EU.

Marc said...

When LMDW says "harm Japanese whisky's image", they actually mean "harm our monopoly".
For the past 6 years or so, competition has been sorely missed in France when it comes to whisky. And anything that can wipe the cold smugness of LMDW is good enough in my book.