Japan's Role in Saving Bourbon

by Colonel Steve Akley


Japan's Role in Saving Bourbon

Last week, I had a post about Booker Noe's role in the resurgence of bourbon. While it's not possible to pin the whole turnaround the magnitude the likes of which we have witnessed with bourbon on one person, I do believe what Booker Noe managed to achieve on his rollout of Jim Beam's Small Batch Collection was the single most important component of getting bourbon to where we see it today. Redefining the role of the master distiller, and the grassroots marketing efforts of meetings with fans and media put bourbon back at the forefront of the minds of consumers, which, in-turn, brought them back to bourbon in droves for Jim Beam. As the other brands followed suit, bringing their master distillers into the spotlight, their brands also experienced a spike in sales and we had the foundation built for the sales numbers we see today.

What if there wasn't a bourbon industry to turnaround, though?

Okay... admittedly, that's an overstatement. There isn't a scenario where the bourbon industry was going to disappear. Make no mistake, though, the bourbon industry was in trouble. Not necessarily from anything they were doing, either. That's important to point out. Consumers were experimenting. I mean James Bond was cool. He was drinking those damned "shaken not stirred" martinis... well, guess what? So were the people watching those movies.

Even as outsiders, we know planning production has to be tough. Up until 1970, year-over-year growth numbers were always solid for bourbon. Since you are always planning 4-6(+) years ahead since your product must age when it comes to bourbon, it makes sense you are going to miss the mark initially when demand starts to taper. Then, you have to assume this is just an anonmally and business is going to pick back up so you stay the course.

In the meantime, your rickhouses are getting full... then more full... then, yet even more full.

Now, you are faced with a dilemma. Consumers have devalued your product in their mind to seek out other distilled spirits. Do you lower your prices, and then, in-fact devalue your product? Dump it down the drain? Keep doing what you've always been doing? Sell it off at a reduced rate, not on the retailer market but someone looking to put their label on it?

These were tough times with a lot of challenging decisions for sure. What the bourbon industry found during these tough times was a glimmer of hope in Japan. A large market, with a thirst for good old American bourbon. While the generation that grew up in the 60s may have been about collectively turning its back on what their parents liked, the Japanese were very much into American culture and products.

What's more American than bourbon?

Distilleries now had an outlet to ship the product inside those barrels in their very full rickhouses.

Did Japan singlehandedly save bourbon?

No, but, they certainly helped during the most challenging times the industry has ever seen. (And Jimmy Russell, of course, because he's been there for all of it... how cool is that to think about?) Even though Japan may not have singlehandedly saved the industry, they probably saved some of the individual companies and we, as consumers, are certainly better off as bourbon fans for Japan being there when bourbon needed a little love!

My podcasting partner Renee Howe and I recently had the privilege of speaking to Kentucky Bourbon Hall-of-Fame author/blogger Chuck Cowdery about Japan's role in saving bourbon. What an amazing day that was! Renee and I sat back and let Chuck educate us about what was going on during that time frame. I learned more in the 90 minutes, or so, that Renee, Chuck and I talked than perhaps any other 90-minute timeframe since I've been into bourbon.

You do not want to miss this episode of Bourbon History. Our show, Bourbon History is on The ABV Network Channel, which our version of the Food Network in podcasting. It has a variety of bourbon-themed content. You can download the ABV Network Channel wherever you listen to podcasts... iTunes, Stitcher, PodBean, Google Play, etc. You can also listen on our website with no downloads of software need. Just press play and enjoy on your smartphone or laptop. Here is a direct link to our show with Chuck Cowdery as we talk about Japan and the bourbon industry: https://goo.gl/1TukAQ