Japan has been a major market for Bourbon for a long time. It could possibly trace its roots to the 1850s when Commodore Matthew Perry first went to Japan in a bit of gunboat diplomacy and forced open the Japanese market to western trade. His ships carried with them several barrels of whiskey that were given as gifts to the Japanese. It is not certain that this whiskey was Bourbon — it could have been rye whiskey — but it was American whiskey.
There was trade in whiskey in Japan throughout the 19th century. We know this because in 1869, the Japanese had a legal case against an importer of whiskey that ended up in the Ohio Supreme Court system where the case was heard by Judge Alphoso Taft, the father of President William Howard Taft. The case involved rectified whiskey being sold as straight whiskey. Even then, the Japanese appreciated straight American whiskey.
The exports to Japan were small until after the Second World War. American occupation of Japan created the modern demand for Bourbon in Japan. As American soldiers and sailors stationed in Japan bought Bourbon from the PX at little cost (it was tax free), they took it with them as they partied with local people. This created a taste for Bourbon with the Japanese people. They still drank a lot of Scotch whisky and they created their own whiskey in imitation of Scotch whiskey, but they also made a “Bourbon style” whiskey on a smaller scale.
In the 1980s and 90s, when Bourbon sales were shrinking in America, the Japanese were still importing a lot of Bourbon. When I started working at United Distillers in 1991, I.W. Harper Bourbon was selling for the unheard of price of about $100 a bottle in Japan. It was such a lucrative market that Schenley had discontinued the brand in the United States to protect the brand from the “grey market” sales in Japan. The grey market was when people would come to the United States and purchase cases of I.W.
Harper at the U.S. market price, take it back to Japan and pay the import taxes and still sell it for a nice profit.
The Japanese market was lucrative enough that many companies created brands just for the Japanese market. People such as Julian Van Winkle and Evan Kulsveen depended upon the Japanese market for profits on the sales there. They were getting premium prices for their Bourbons. Prices they could not get in the United States. United Distillers even created a bottling of Old Charter, using Stitzel-Weller Bourbon, just for the Japanese market. Japan was where the market for Bourbon was profitable in the early 1990s.
The economic collapse of Japan in the late 1990s saw these huge whiskey profits collapse. The market was still profitable, but the Japanese were not paying such high prices for Bourbon anymore as times were tight. Fortunately, the market for Bourbon was beginning to grow in the United States about that time. Still, there were profits to be made in the Japanese market and companies were catering to the Japanese taste for Bourbon. The Japanese were also investing in Bourbon in the United States. Ki-Rin purchased Four Roses Distillery when Seagrams sold their distilling operation to the former United Distillers, now Diageo. The Japanese company, Suntory, would later purchase Jim Beam Brands.
Japan played an important role in saving Bourbon during the hard times of the late 20th century. It is still a major market for Bourbon and other American Whiskeys.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller