This week I have been reading, with intrigued attention, the new rules announced for Japanese whisky for relevant authorities in that country.
They are, as many have commented, almost stating the obvious: for a whisky to be called ‘Japanese’, it must use raw ingredients extracted from Japan, and its entire process (from fermentation to ageing and bottling) must happen in Japan.
But this is not always true for Japanese whisky, which have had the most astonishing rise in popularity and price in the last couple of decades. Unlike scotch, or even bourbon, which have well-defined rules about what can and cannot be called ‘scotch’ or ‘bourbon’, the rules for Japanese whisky were often ignored, even though they existed on paper.
The distinction between made in Japan from Japanese ingredients and processes, and merely manufactured in Japan using a mishmash of products from elsewhere became blurred.
But, as some of us have repeatedly argued, in the post-Covid-19 world, authenticity has become ever more important. For products to stand out and gain price advantage, why and how they are distinct must be affirmed even more strictly.
Then there is the question of supply chains. What was easy to move, mix up, and then move again, might not be as simple anymore, and not as lucrative or secure.
If the new rules are applied rigorously, it shows the path to countries like India who are increasingly having success in pitching their own whiskies—two famous brands from India to have made their mark internationally are Paul John and Amrut (they have both won exciting international awards too).
It shows that countries other than the famed western giants of whisky can establish rigorously their own rules and charge a premium on products where these are diligently followed. This is important because, as the Amrut people told me years ago in an essay for Fortune India, there are differences in climate and other elements that need to be understood and considered when considering whisky from the West and the East. For instance, whiskies age faster in the tropical climate than climes like Scotland, and therefore fixed durations of maturation in the cask made in the West might not always work the same way in the East. And that something that has spent less time in the casks in the East does not make it a lesser product.
As the world of whisky drinkers becomes younger and more experimentative, the demand for more innovative products is increasing, and people want to taste different items from novel parts of the world.
This means that the ‘new world’ in the world of whiskies must learn to pitch itself and its uniqueness in creative ways. The first step in this process is building special rules suitable for each country which can be the basis upon which quality is adjudged.
This also means that while innovation is all very well—for instance sourcing from multiple places and creating a new blend in Japan—but basic ground rules of authenticity for a product to be called Made in Japan or Made in India must be formulated quite like Made in Scotland is.
Indian whisky makers must see this as an opportunity, a window opening to pitch a product where India can not only provide a vast market, as one of the world’s great whisky consuming nations, but also build and proliferate products that would capture the imagination of customers around the globe.
If that happens, new investment might pour in from around the world not only in bottling, distributing, and selling global brands in India, but also promoting India products. Now that’s a thought worth saying cheers to.
Views are personal. The author is a multiple award-winning author of nine books. He is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.