Japanese Whisky and Fukushima

With this article, we try to approach a tricky subject: Japanese Whisky and the reactor accident of Fukushima. Are the consequences – even for Whisky – as bad as the press implied? You can read our assessment about this matter here.

map of japan with Fukushima pinned

In March 2011 a nuclear catastrophe happened in the Japanese nuclear power plant Fukushima I. The incident was classified as the second-worst nuclear accident, following the disaster of Chernobyl in the year 1986. The press often depicted the aftermath as very dramatic: claims like, “you can never travel to Japan again”, “cars will be delivered contaminated” and “Japanese Whisky is no longer drinkable” could be read or heard. But it was not as bad as proclaimed. Some press and media are known for their exaggerations to sell more copies.

We don’t want to play down the matter: the reactor incident of Fukushima was a terrible catastrophe. And we will deal with the aftermath for centuries. But we don’t have the same opinion about Japanese Whisky, as the press.

There are many things to consider before deciding on wether to buy Japanese Whisky again.

Does the Contamination Affect our Whisky?

There is no doubt. But we have to go back a little bit, to explain the influence of radioactive rays on Whisky.

In the year 2002, the Scottish distillery Macallan bought collectors bottles from Italian Independent Fillers on eBay. The contents of these bottles were filled into Macallan bottles and sold for 250€ each. Whether it was original Macallan or Italian Whisky, was not clear for the buyers. To identify the contents, the radiation in the bottles was measured.

But how will the radiation determine which Whisky is in the bottle? And how does it get in there in the first place? Radioactive contamination was an effect of the atomic bomb tests around the world in the 60s. As a consequence, cornfields everywhere had a slight amount of radiation. The test results for the alleged Macallan bottles were not in their favour. The tests proofed: the Whisky couldn’t be from a time before the nuclear bomb tests in the '60s. The malt must’ve been made out of grain that was cultivated later than the 60s; it could not be from the time the bottles claimed: 1950.

Radiation in Daily Life

Even Bavaria, where our headquarters are located, was affected by a reactor accident a few years ago. In the year of 1986, a disaster happened in the reactor of the nuclear power plant Chernobyl (Ukraine). The radiation rose to the atmosphere and came back down in the form of rain – also in Bavaria. Back then Horst Lüning bought a Geiger counter to measure the radiation. But the Geiger counter did not detect any radioactive rays. That’s because most of the radiation was absorbed bit by bit by the environment. The radiation is in the ground, and we only consume it, when we eat plants, which were cultivated in those soils. Limits values and controls for radiation are therefore very important for us consumers. We’re exposed to gamma rays on airplanes and through bricks made out of clay. You can see: There are enough radioactive rays in our everyday life. The question is, how much we can stand. Also a question for our Whisky. Is the radiation we are exposed to as harmful as claimed? Japan was already hit by two nuclear bombs in World War II and was affected by high radiation: The terrible catastrophes of Hiroshima in the south and Nagasaki in the southwest, which cost many lives. But despite that, Japanese people are getting older than most people in western countries. Of course, more factors affect human life expectancies like diet, lifestyle, and many others.

We don’t want to gloss over the tragedy of Fukushima. But it is not like you can’t or shouldn not buy Japanese products like the media often suggested. It’s way worse for the surrounding region of the close 100 kilometers: Sadly there will be many cases of cancer and death.

Radiation in Japanese Whisky?

Miyagikyo distillery pot stills
The Pot Stills of Miyagikyo Distillery

We as European Whisky lovers ask ourselves: Is there dangerous radiation in Japanese bottles, like the Yamazaki 12, or not? Moreover, how can radiation contaminate Whisky? The radiation of the accident of Fukushima rose to the atmosphere and came down to the ground again with rain. Therefore plants will be no longer cultivated in the immediate area because they would absorb the radioactive rays in the ground. If a person ate and digested one of those, the radiation would contaminate the body. The radiation will react with the components of our body and will therefore stay there.

Whisky in Japan is produced in many distilleries in the north and the south of the island. One or more could be – by various definitions – in the affected surroundings of Fukushima. But all of the warehouses have roofs and the barrels are therefore untouched by the radioactive rain. The Whisky which will be bottled after the incident should be also unaffected – given that the water used in the process is clean. But we can assume that a civilized country like Japan strives for a good quality of water.

Much more dangerous is the cultivation of grain in the affected area, which then will be used in the production of Whisky. Radioactive rays are unaffected by the distillation process and will therefore end up in the Whisky. Even radiation-free water won’t help. That is why the Japanese distillery Miyagikyo (Nikka), for example, excludes the usage of local grain and barley from safe cultivation areas.

Maybe caution is advised for the bottling years 2022 – 2024 of Japanese Whisky. This applies to the ten- and twelve-year bottlings, which were produced with grain harvested after the reactor accident. Whiskies without an age statement should have already proceeded with caution. They are probably younger and are more likely to be affected by radioactive rays.

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