It was 1975 and bourbon sales in America were tanking. The brown spirit had hit its peak just five years earlier, selling some 80 million cases in 1970 — but it all went downhill from there.
Baby boomers coming of drinking age were rejecting the stuffy-seeming whiskey their parents drank, instead favoring beer, cheap wine, and, most especially, clear booze like vodka and tequila. The American whiskey industry was reeling and running out of ideas.
“This was a daunting task since the market was totally Scotch-taste oriented,” William Yuracko, then head of Schenley International’s export division, told The New York Times in 1992. Japanese people mostly drank Scotch — the country had lifted all restrictions on imported spirits in 1969 — or their own homegrown whiskey, which was likewise based on a Scotch flavor profile. “Bourbon was unknown and a total departure from the taste pattern,” he wrote.
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Remarkably, within a few short years, Yuracko (who would become Schenley president from 1975 to 1984) and others would create a frenzy for bourbon in Japan. In fact, the country’s desire for very well-aged, high-proof, premium-packaged, limited editions and single-barrel bourbons helped Kentucky survive when the American bourbon market was dead as disco.
The U.S. would, in turn, follow Japan’s lead and, as the world entered a new millennium, start latching onto these trends and introducing products that helped revive America’s fervor for the once-humble spirit, ultimately and unwittingly turning it into something now rabidly pursued by connoisseurs the world over.
A Critical Mass of Bourbon
Yuracko first started taking reconnaissance trips to the Far East in 1972 and quickly realized that getting Scotch-swilling Japanese old-timers to switch to bourbon would be nearly impossible. He decided to instead focus his efforts on Japan’s youth, the “post-college consumer,” he told The Times, “whose tastes were not yet formed and who was attuned to Western products and ideas,” like Coca-Cola and Levi’s.
“They were having their own youth revolution, [like] what we had gone through in the ’60s they were going through in the 80s,” explains Chuck Cowdery, author and bourbon historian. “Rejecting their parents’ generation, including what their parents’ generation drank. They were open to trying something new.”
Enter bourbon. Then, as now, it was very hard for foreigners to make headway in Japanese business. Yuracko knew he’d need a local liaison, so he offered a distribution partnership with Suntory, the Japanese whiskey brand that already controlled 70 percent of the local market. Brown-Forman, another American whiskey powerhouse and Schenley’s best competitor, would eventually offer Suntory the same deal.
“I cannot overestimate the importance of the decision taken by Schenley management to place their most important brands in the same house with their major competitor,” Yuracko explained in a paper he wrote for the Journal of Business Strategy in 1992. “This would be tantamount to Ford and General Motors giving all their top models to Toyota to market in Japan.”
It was a major gamble for everyone involved. Suntory could, of course, intentionally torpedo all bourbon sales to assure Japanese whiskey would never again have a competitor; or it could favor one bourbon brand over the other. The fact was, however, neither Schenley nor Brown-Forman had much to lose. If they didn’t take the gamble, bourbon might not even exist by the end of the decade.
Suntory didn’t want to simply do a trial, either. According to Yuracko, Suntory wanted a “critical mass” of bourbon, “a product for every taste and price level … and each brand was given its own identity and market niche.” Schenley offered Suntory Ancient Age, J.W. Dant, and I.W. Harper. Brown-Forman handed over Early Times, Old Forester, and Jack Daniel’s.
Since most drinking in Japan was done outside of the home, Schenley and Brown-Forman together began setting up bourbon bars all over the country. The bars had “an unsophisticated atmosphere that would appeal to young people already attracted to American clothes, cars, and customs,” Yuracko explained, playing country music and serving American food like hamburgers and chili, and only pouring Suntory’s six bourbon brands.
Instead of buying single glasses of bourbon, young customers purchased bottles, stored in cabinets along the bars, each adorned with a neck tag denoting whose was whose. In an era before TikTok, it became a youthful challenge to see who could drink the most personal bottles. Thanks to heavy advertising from Suntory, one brand quickly began to rise above the others.
“I.W. Harper was the eye-opener,” explains Cowdery. A bottom-shelf product in America, it was naturally able to be sold at much higher prices in Japan, before Schenley eventually fully repositioned it as a premium, 12-year-old product. If it was only moving 2,000 cases internationally in 1969, I. W. Harper eventually became the largest-selling bourbon brand in Japan at more than 500,000 cases per year by 1991. Cowdery explains, “It was profitable to buy cases of I.W. Harper on [the American] wholesale market and privately ship them to Japan.”
Eventually, the U.S. had to take I.W. Harper off the market stateside in order to satisfy demand in Japan. Soon enough, other brands took notice and decided to see if they, too, could become “big in Japan.” By 1990, 2 million cases of bourbon were headed to the country every year.
More Brands Head to Japan
In a sleepy Osaka suburb, a three-story building that has been everything from a hotel to a brothel is now a bar styled like a western saloon. It serves American food like fried chicken, thumps Dylan and the Beatles on a vintage jukebox, and mixes up classic cocktails like the Mint Julep and another called the Scarlett O’Hara. This is Rogin’s Tavern in Moriguichi, a bourbon bar that opened in the 1970s that remains a shrine to Americana and its governmentally protected spirit, stocking more and arguably better bourbon than pretty much any single bar in America.
“I tasted my first bourbon in the basement bar of the Rihga Royal Hotel, a famous old place in Osaka,” claims Seiichiro Tatsumi, Rogin’s owner since 1977. He quickly became obsessed, reading everything he could about bourbon via literature provided by the American Cultural Center in Osaka. He finally visited Kentucky for the first time in 1984 and fell in love, driving its country roads, stopping at off-the-beaten path liquor stores, and acquiring numerous dusty bottles to bring back to Japan. He now owns a second home in Lexington.
Over the years, Tatsumi claims, he has probably “self-imported” some 5,000 bourbons from America back to his bar. “I stop at every place I pass, and I don’t just look on the shelves,” he says. “I ask the clerk to comb the cellar and check the storeroom for anything old. I can’t tell you how many cases of ancient bottles I’ve found that way.”
It wasn’t only Tatsumi. Japan gave these old bourbon brands a new lifeline. For example, Four Roses had long fallen out of favor with American drinkers by the 1970s. In 1967, Seagram’s turned the once-venerable brand into a dreaded blended whiskey, cut with grain neutral spirit and added flavoring.
“[B]y the time the ‘90s rolled around it was just an average blended whiskey,” the late Al Young, Four Roses’ former senior brand ambassador who worked at the company for 50 years, told VinePair contributor Nicholas Mancall-Bitel last year. But in Japan it was legitimate straight bourbon whiskey, packaged in sleek Cognac-style bottles with embossed silver roses, and it was a big hit. Just as Schenley and Brown-Forman had partnered with Suntory, in 1971 Four Roses struck up a partnership with Kirin, Japan’s top beer brand.
If brands like I.W. Harper, Four Roses, and Early Times were saved by Japan, others were specifically created for it. Blanton’s, for example, was spawned in 1984 by two former Fleischmann’s Distilling execs, Ferdie Falk and Bob Baranaskas. The two had acquired the Buffalo Trace distillery (then known as the George T. Stagg Distillery), as well as Schenley’s key bourbon, Ancient Age. Believing, like Yuracko, that the future of bourbon was overseas, they called their new company Age International.
“[T]he brand chased the profitable high-priced segment,” writes Fred Minnick in his book “Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey.” In this case, that meant introducing the world’s first commercial single-barrel bourbon, specifically designed for Japan, and packaged in a now iconic grenade-shaped, horse-stoppered bottle.
Blanton’s was such a hit in Japan that by 1992 Japanese company Takara Shuzo had purchased Age International for $20 million. It immediately flipped the actual distillery to Sazerac, while retaining the brand trademarks for Blanton’s.
Aged Bourbons Claim a Price
Accustomed to Scotch, once Japanese consumers “moved onto other types of whiskey, they already had these expectations built in for 12-, 15-, 18-year age statements,” explains John Rudd, an American who formerly lived in Japan and runs the Tokyo Bourbon Bible blog.
Bourbon in America had typically been released after about four years — it got too oaky if it aged much longer, it was believed at the time — and few consumers particularly cared about lofty age statements. Not so in Japan and, luckily, the glut in America allowed many bourbon distilleries to unload what they thought was over-aged junk.
“With a depressed market in America, lots of bourbon, especially extra-aged bourbon, was shipped to Japan where it could command a higher price,” Rudd says.
There was Very Old St. Nick, specially created in 1984 for the Japanese market, some as old as 25 years. There was Old Grommes Very Very Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which in the late 1980s started sending Japan bottles as old as two decades. A.H. Hirsch, aged 15, 16, and eventually 20 years, landed in Japan as early as 1989, and is still some of the most coveted bourbon of all time (so much so that Cowdery wrote an entire book about it).
“Japan considered bourbon a prestigious, highly coveted consumer good,” says Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey’s master distiller who started visiting Japan in the 1980s. Every year he returned with special bottlings from his company, some as old as 13 years, a lofty age that never existed in America. “Back then, you’d see private bottle programs at prestigious bars where high-level executives would have their own bottles of bourbon designated ‘my bottle.’”
Rogin’s Tavern, for one, started tapping distilleries for its own private, cask-strength bottlings. Willett provided a 25-year-old labeled “Rogin’s Choice.” Julian Van Winkle III, scion of the soon-to-come Pappy dynasty, offered a 12-year bottling. Van Winkle III, in particular, kept his nascent company afloat in the mid-1980s and onward by providing special bottlings, many under a name you could easily now call the entire Japanese whiskey marketplace: Society of Bourbon Connoisseurs.
Van Winkle III first released Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year in America in 1994; by the mid-2000s, Pappy had become the most coveted whiskey in the country, regularly selling for thousands of dollars per bottle.
“Bourbon became popular here [in America] again,” explains Rudd. “And people quit thinking it needed to be young.”
The American Bourbon Revival
America’s bourbon malaise would last nearly three decades, reaching its nadir in 2000, when a mere 32 million cases were moved stateside. Of course, it’s always darkest before the dawn, and, thanks to Japan’s example, things were already being put into place for bourbon’s homeland revival.
Like at Four Roses, where Jim Rutledge took over as master distiller in 1995 and made it his mission to get the company to start letting American consumers finally taste the high-quality bourbon Japan had been enjoying for decades. As Mancall-Bitel explained, however, “The bourbon was performing too well overseas and the company didn’t want to rock the boat — until it was rocked from within the company.”
Seagram’s collapsed and started selling off its assets. Rutledge convinced Kirin to buy Four Roses, and the eventual Japanese CEO, Teruyuki Daino, moved his offices from Tokyo back to the distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky. By 2002, once again, Four Roses bourbon was sold in America. Today it’s one of the bourbon world’s most revered brands, introducing geek-friendly products like Single Barrel in 2004 and the Small Batch series in 2006.
Japan proved that well-aged, premium bourbon actually had a place in the world. Bourbon didn’t have to be Scotch’s economical, bottom-shelf brother. Blanton’s, when it was finally sold in America, was priced at $24 a bottle — then a massive price point — and was advertised in such upscale places as The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and Ivy League alumni mags. Around the same time, Japanese drinkers were gladly paying $115 per bottle.
Bourbon’s rebirth in America has caused many brands to pull back their products from the Japanese market and raise prices on the little still sent there. Japan’s taste for bourbon has dwindled. At the same time, American tourists were heading to Japan to clear shelves of old stock.
“It all corresponded with the American bourbon boom getting out of hand,” explains Rudd. He believes Japan is no longer the bourbon oasis that it once was, even as recently as 2014, when he lived near a liquor store that stocked rare bottles like Society of Bourbon Connoisseurs, gold wax A.H. Hirsch, Van Winkle 1974 Family Reserve 17 Year, and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection offerings from the early aughts.
Rudd says he’d buy a few bottles here and there, always resting assured that more would be there any time he returned. “Then one day, I went back to the store and nothing was left,” he says. “I asked the owner what happened and he told me, ‘Some American guy named Alex came by and purchased all of it.’”