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Why Anyone Who Loves Rare Bourbon Should Visit Japan

Japan Restaurants + Bars Food + Drink
by Nickolaus Hines Mar 27, 2024

Last November, I took advantage of a recently revived direct flight to Tokyo on United Airlines from my hometown of Denver. It was a nine-day family trip with my wife and one-year-old daughter, and eating was top of mind. Partly because we took the trip over Thanksgiving, partly because, well, nearly all of our travel is centered around eating. For one of the nights, my wife graciously took over childcare duties so I could go out and get a taste of Japan’s famous cocktail culture as well as seek out some rare Japanese whisky (like most of the world, Japan drops the “e” in whiskey).

I found plenty of cocktails, but Japanese whisky that I couldn’t also find at home proved harder to come by. Turns out what I really should have been on the look out for was rare vintage bourbon.

A new book by journalist Aaron Goldfarb, Dusty Booze: In Search of Vintage Spirits, covers the wild world of “dusty hunting.” Collectors, spirits lovers, and people looking to make a quick buck have been scouring liquor stores for forgotten vintage liquor for the better part of two decades. Some do so because it’s an ephemeral time capsule, or because they believe the old stuff was simply made better. Others because these bottles were undervalued by people not in the know and could be flipped for thousands of dollars or sold by the ounce at bars for hundreds of dollars a sip.

I’m not a dusty bottle hunter myself. That said, as someone who has written about alcohol for nearly 10 years, I love the idea of being able to try something rare that will never exist again. Because of the high price, however, those experiences are few and far between. America’s liquor stores have largely been picked over already and the barrier to entry is simply too high.

Yet it’s a different story in Japan thanks to a quirky piece of drinking history.

“Japan is still a bit of a dusty bourbon haven,” Goldfarb tells me over Instagram. “Dudes definitely still travel there explicitly to look for bottles.”

By the 1970s, bourbon was out for American drinkers and disco drinks that hid neutral tasting spirits were in. That led to what Goldfarb calls the “glut era” — a time when plenty of bourbon was still being made, but not a lot was being sold. So some bourbon distilleries turned to foreign markets. The place that really took off? Japan.

Older Japanese drinkers stuck to their Scotch, which has a longer history in Japan, and native Japanese whisky, which is modeled after Scottish distilling practices. The opportunity was with younger generations who followed American culture.

William Yuracko, who led the export division of the now-shuttered liquor conglomerate Schenley International, saw this opening after a trip to Japan in 1972, Goldfarb writes. He struck a distribution partnership with Japanese spirits giant Suntory, and bourbon-focused spirits company Brown-Forman (today one of the largest liquor conglomerates in the world) did the same.

“Suntory wanted a ‘critical mass’ of bourbon, ‘a product for every taste and price level,’” Yuracko told Goldfarb, “and each brand was given its own identity and market niche.”

The two companies were competitors in the United States. Suntory made them both big in Japan. Schenley’s brands Ancient Age, J.W. Dant, and I.W. Harper took off abroad, as did Brown-Forman’s Early Times, Old Forester, and Jack Daniel’s. Suntory opened bourbon bars to meet Japanese consumers where they like to drink. A portion of the bars had a distinct “America” theme — country music, burgers, fried chicken — but they all focused entirely on bourbon.

The gambit worked. I.W. Harper in particular became a favorite, going from 2,000 cases sold internationally per year in 1969 to being the biggest bourbon in Japan at 500,000 cases per year by 1991. The distillery even stopped selling in America for a time to feed Japanese demand, meaning these now-vintage bottles are especially hard to find unless you’re abroad. Across the board, 2 million cases of bourbon went to Japan every year by 1990.

The Japanese market’s influence eventually started to change bourbon itself. Drinkers there were used to spirits like Scotch that aged in barrel for more than a decade. Scotland has consistently cooler, more mild temperatures than hot-summer Kentucky, where nearly all bourbon is made. Scotland’s weather means spirits can age in barrel for longer without being overtaken by heavy oak flavors. Bourbon, by contrast, was typically aged about four years to keep the oak from taking over.

Japanese drinkers wanted to see similar 10-year-plus age statements on their bourbon as they did on their Scotch. Bourbon distilleries with loads of liquor sitting unbottled acquiesced. By the ‘80s, high age statement bourbon started to hit that market: 13-year Wild Turkey, 23-year Evan Williams — the list goes on. A.H. Hirsch 15-, 16-, and 20-year bourbon was particularly popular. There’s even a book about it called The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste by Charles Cowdery. There were also brands, like Blanton’s, the first commercial single-barrel bourbon, created specifically for Japan.

By the early 2000s, bourbon’s fortunes changed as Americans started to adore their native spirit once again. The era of people buying up old bottles that had sat on store shelves collecting dust was upon us. Whereas vintage bourbons are mostly in the hands of collectors in the US today (and therefore largely inaccessible for the curious drinker on a budget), Japan’s large cache of dusty bottles is more intact and relatively reasonably priced thanks to how much of a focus the country was for bourbon distillers in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.

Bourbon culture is still strong in Japan, both for vintage and newer releases. Goldfarb calls out Ken Matsuyama’s two Tokyo bars, both called Ken’s Bar, as the top bourbon bars in the city with selections you’d never find stateside.

“Even today Japan remains one of the final frontiers for American dusty hunters, with loads of great bottles dotting the country,” Goldfarb writes. “But, just like America, it’s not as great as it used to be.”

Hopefully by the next time I’m able to make it overseas there will still be some left to try.

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