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Why Japan Loves Bourbon

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

Did you know Japan has been one of the most enthusiastic long-term markets for America's native spirit. In fact, the Japanese helped to keep the bourbon business afloat, leading to  the whiskey's renaissance we have today. Here's why Japan loves bourbon:

Why Japan loves bourbon

(Pictured: Shinya, Tokyo, Japan. During the 1970s and 1980s, when bourbon was unloved in America, Japan was -- and remains -- a country ofbourbon lovers.  Wikipedia Creative Commons, Credit:  Benh Lieu Song.)

The fall of bourbon in the U.S  

Today, the bourbon business is booming of course, with many sought-after brands selling for prices above the retail price in secondary markets. Many folks think bourbon has always gotten this love.

After all, bourbon has rules.  Among them:

  • Must be made in the USA. In 1964, Congress mandated that bourbon had to be made in America. Just like Champagne must be made in the Champagne region of France
  • Bourbon has to be aged in new charred white oak barrels. 
  • The mash bill (recipe) must be at least 51% corn
  • Not higher than 160 proof. The higher the proof, the more the flavors are removed. Think of vodka at 190; no flavor.

There are a few other rules, plus a whole other requirement called Bottled in Bond. Add to that the delicious limestone creek water and Kentucky's hot summers and cool winters that create "honey barrels"-- and you've got a distinctive pour that should always be loved.

But you'd be wrong, or at least not fully accurate.

After the early 1960s, when Mad Men's dapper Don Draper drank a pour, bourbon started going out of style. The new generation didn't want "your father's Oldsmobilw," as the car ad used to say. Vodka and other drinks took over. The whiskey distillers tried to update their brands with things like "clear, light" whiskey (the horror) but that time-honored golden-brown nectar was out of style.

By the 1970s, you could barely give bourbon away. Nobody wanted that old fuddy-duddy stuff. The Don Drapers were now grandfathers.

Schenley looks for new markets

Schenley Industries was one of the four major alcohol conglomerates in  mid-20th Century American. They had to figure out a way to sell their bourbon brands, and they turned to international markets.

This was not unheard of. In fact, Schenley had done something similar in the late 1950s, when their founder Lewis Rosenstiel wrongly predicted that the Korean War would grow into a worldwide conflict. He ramped up production and inventory in anticipation of coming shortages, and found himself with overstock, to say the least.

As a solution,  he looked overseas for customers. In 1964, he got the U S. Congress to declare bourbon a uniquely American product, as described earlier. This meant he didn't have to compete with other whiskeys and whiskies around the world. 

Fast forward a decade, and William Yuracko of Schenley's International looked to Japan. The country's whiskey/whisky palette was decidedly Scotch-flavored.

The irony of it all -- bourbon is actually hip

Japan's older generations were set in their ways, with their Scotch taste preferences. So -- it what must be one of the great, ironic role reversals in marketing history, Schenley and Brown-Forman teamed up with Suntory in Japanese to market bourbon to the new generation,  as the hip, cool drink.

Special editions, single barrels, bourbon bars -- all became popular in Japan, when America's distinctive product was at the time down in the dumps in its native land. The aforementioned products, and the bars, would later fuel the resurgence in the United States.

The unhip becomes hip

I.W Harper was a bottom-shelf, unloved brand in America. In 1969, it was selling maybe a few thousand cases worldwide. In Japan, it became hip -- as cool as Coca-Cola and Levi's -- and by the beginning of the 1990s was selling a half-million cases a year. Schenley had to remove I W. Harper from the U.S. market to meet demand in the whiskey's adopted home.

Some bourbon you can only get now in Japan

Did you know that Evan Williams has a Red Label bottle? It's a 12-year, 101-proof bourbon and it is not sold in the United States. It is made for the market in Japan  Only recently could you even find it within the states -- now at only one place: the Evan Williams Experience in Louisville, KY. You can buy it for about $200.00.

Here's a larger list of bourbons only available overseas, such as Four Roses Premium Bourbon. The article says: "Four Roses’s history is inextricably tied to Japan. To survive American whiskey’s down years, the company shifted its gaze to more fruitful Asian and European markets — as proof, its straight bourbon didn’t return to the U.S. until 2002.


Evan Williams Red Label

(Pictured: The Evan Williams Red Label bourbon, made for the Japan market. Unavailable in the U.S. except at the Evan Williams Experience in Louisville. Credit: Evan Williams Distillery/Heaven Hill)

A thankful legacy

As we are grateful for Kentucky and their distilleries, for limestone creeks, white oak trees, we must also be grateful to the Japanese bourbon market, for keeping America's whiskey alive during those years when it was unloved at its home.

Here's a cool video below on buying bourbon online in Japan, acquiring export-only (not available in the U.S) brands. "Wild Turkey Rare Breed Non-Chill-Filtered, Wild Turkey 13 Year Distiller's Reserve, and Ancient Ancient (yes twice)  Age 8 Year":

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