“An aroma that is a full rounded bouquet of caramel, vanillin, and alcohol that is pleasant and not raw or medicinal. Taste is slight caramel and vanillin semisweet alcohol that is smooth and pleasant, without bite or bitter taste. There is no lingering after-taste or burning sensation.”
This is how Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee described the desired, if general flavor profile for Blanton’s Single Barrel bourbon, which debuted in 1984. But it wasn’t meant for you — or any American drinker, for that matter. Instead, it was a product of savvy American marketing efforts to save a sinking bourbon business, and Japanese receptive good taste.
In “Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Whiskey,” author Fred Minnick describes Blanton’s Single Barrel’s 1984 release: “[It] entered the U.S. market for $24, targeting baby-boomer pockets.” But, he continues, “the new bourbon was a domestic flop. In fact, the only thing positive about Blanton’s was its popularity in Japan.”
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Yes, hearing that a dram this special, with its caramel, vanilla, semisweet notes, was not intended for the country that invented it is a bit like tearfully thanking coworkers through a mouthful of your “birthday cake,” only to learn it was meant for Jan’s going-away party.
Blanton’s Single Barrel, the idiosyncratic seductress-in-whiskey we’ve finally grown to appreciate here in the U.S., was created by two enterprising liquor executives, Ferdie Falk and Bob Baranaskas. Both perceived 1980s-era America’s lack of taste in good whiskey, and Japan’s seemingly insatiable thirst for the stuff.
Bourbon’s popularity in Japan was no accident. It was created specifically for Japan by aforementioned Ferdie Falk and Bob Baranaskas (with a little help from Elmer T. Lee — but more on that later). The duo had previously worked for Fleischmann’s Distilling, a subsidiary of Nabisco. After some very big companies did some reshuffling amidst the shoulder-padded power lunch that was 1980s corporate America (Fleischmann’s was sold to a company called Grand Metropolitan, which would years later merge with Guinness to form Diageo), Falk and Baranaskas had a decision to make: try their luck in corporate restructuring, or move on. They very wisely, and pivotally for bourbon lovers, chose the latter.
Sticking to spirits, Falk and Baranaskas looked for an outfit to buy. Falk had worked for the famed Lewis Rosenstiel of Schenley Industries and worked out a purchase of one of its distilling operations, putting Falk and Barnaskas at the helm of their very own distillery: Albert B. Blanton’s, or what we know today as Buffalo Trace. Believing “bourbon’s future was outside the U.S.,” Minnick writes, “one of their first moves was the creation of Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon. Done at the behest of their Japanese customers, they released it in the U.S. as well.”
As Tom Acitelli writes in “Whiskey Business,” they created the bourbon with the help of legendary Elmer T. Lee, who explained the lore surrounding Col. Albert B. Blanton, the metal-clad Warehouse H (at the time, an exigency of material and cost, it turned out to encourage interaction between barrel and bourbon, resulting in a richer product). And while the U.S. largely ignored it, Japan “represented 51 percent of bourbon’s exports,” Minnick writes, which “grew 349 percent in the 1980s.”
To be fair, it wasn’t that Americans had bad taste, exactly (although it was questionable in the 1970s). It was that bourbon was, arguably intentionally, losing its quality. For example, in 1973, Four Roses put out an ad celebrating “Whiskey without the Whelm” — as in, “underwhelming” whiskey that was “never overpowering.” This inevitably led to what some might consider two-dimensional, easy-drinking swill.
Part of the reason for that drop in quality was overproduction. Lots of bourbon was being made, quickly and cheaply. This owed at least in part to fears of the Korean War diverting distillery resources (somewhat similar to the way we all buy a lot of booze in advance of a snowstorm — or a pandemic).
Additionally, younger Americans wanted to drink differently than their parents had. That meant more vodka, less bourbon, and, at least for a couple decades, bourbon having to find its footing elsewhere.
As whiskey guru and author Chuck Cowdery tells VinePair: “The sudden Japanese enthusiasm for bourbon is usually explained as a generational thing. The youth of that period were rebelling against their elders, the WWII generation, in multiple, cultural ways, much as had occurred in the U.S. in the 1960s.” Cowdery adds, “Since the older generation drank Scotch or Scotch-like Japanese whiskies, younger drinkers started to seek out bourbon.”
Writing into The New York Times in 1992, the former president of massive liquor group Schenley Industries, William Yuracko, nonetheless called marketing bourbon to the Japanese market “a daunting task,” noting, “we still had to wean the consumer away from his traditional preference for a Scotch-type beverage.” Their strategy: appeal to young people, encourage a generational division of tastes, and build bourbon bars where young drinkers could gather and share, and thus reinforce, their new preferences. (It worked.)
There is some speculation as to why American bourbon took off in Japan. Acitelli writes: “Theories abounded as to why the Japanese loved bourbon. … Some said it was the macho image it conveyed. Others said it was par for the course, given that the nation had long embraced American products.”
And Cowdery believes the Elmer T. Lee aspect of the Blanton’s story to be a bit fanciful: “[T]he crediting of Blanton’s to Lee is, in some ways, mostly marketing,” he says. “Falk and his marketing people told Lee what they wanted and he went into his inventory to find something suitable.” In other words, the lore of the old distiller reaching into bourbon history to revive the brand is nice, but we might owe more to Falk and Baranaskas for asking him to go looking. “Lee probably contributed the idea of making it a single barrel and tying it to the legacy of Albert Blanton, but otherwise it was Falk and his marketing folks, and the marketing folks at [Japanese company Takara Shuzo], who created the brand,” says Cowdery.
Another bit of late-‘80s pomade-induced E.S.P.: In his book, Minnick describes a 1989 interview with Heaven Hill Distillery president Max Shapira. In the interview, Shapira tells Cox News Service, “Bourbon whiskey has become the ‘in’ drink abroad — really throughout the world. The ironic thing is that here in the U.S., it’s just the opposite. Wouldn’t it be great if the foreign demand set a domestic trend?”
Why, yes, Mr. Shapira. Yes it would.