Thursday, December 8, 2016

Japanese Bourbon Retail Market

The retail selection in the American bourbon market puts the retail selection in the Japanese bourbon market to shame. I sometimes encounter the opinion that "all the best bourbon is shipped to Japan" or that a certain craft distiller doesn't have to worry about the American market because the Japanese will buy the product in droves. This is simply not true.

1990s: Peak Market

In the 1990s, the situation was very different. With a depressed market in America, lots of bourbon, especially extra-aged bourbon, was shipped to Japan where it could command a higher price. For example, the early A.H. Hirsch bottlings, Very Old St. Nick, Society of Bourbon Connoisseurs, Martin Mills and certain Van Winkle bottlings targeted the Japanese market.

Outside of these super-premium releases, Heaven Hill released many bourbons under "cats & dogs" labels such as Anderson Club, Country Aged and King Kamehameha.

2000s: Dwindling Interest

By the 2000s, the focus had shifted away from the Japanese market and there were far fewer limited bottlings. Most of these limited bottlings were bottled by KBD, who, in addition to creating its own brands such as Rare Perfection, took over many of the brands that Julian Van Winkle had been supplying such as Very Old St. Nick and Society of Bourbon Connoisseurs.

There were many standard expressions, however, that were exclusive to the Japanese market such as I.W. Harper and Four Roses. Export only expression such as Wild Turkey 8, Wild Turkey 12, Four Roses Super Premium, Blanton's Gold and Blanton's SFTB were also widely available.

Heaven Hill continued bottling bourbon under various "cats & dogs" labels, but using different brands, such as Clementine, Rebecca, Black Death and Yellow Rose of Texas.    

2010s: American Bourbon Craze

By the 2010s, the American bourbon market had started to heat up in America and special bottlings for Japan had dried up. There are, however, a few Willett Family Estate bottlings from this era. Japan, however, would still receive an allocation of limited bottlings from Four Roses, KBD, BT, Jefferson's and Van Winkle.

Currently, with the bourbon craze in America was in full swing, the Japan bourbon market has suffered. Buffalo Trace products (aside from Blanton's) have become hard to find and have seen large price increases. For example, Eagle Rare is priced at about $50 and Stagg Jr. is priced at about $100. Elmer T. Lee and Weller 12 have not been on shelves in a couple of years.

Most of the limited bottlings from the late 2000s and early 2010s that had previously languished on shelves have been purchased. New limited editions or allocated releases do not make it to Japan unless they sold poorly in America (e.g., Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary or Michter's Toasted Barrel).

Very few of the American micro-distillers are exporting to Japan. Koval, Balcones and Stranahans are some of the first. Smooth Ambler, High West, King County Distillery and Westland began to be imported in 2016.

Blanton's is the sole bright spot. Because the Blanton's brand is owned by a Japanese company, the various expressions of Blanton's have remained on shelves and are much cheaper than in America.

Right now, the retail bourbon market in America is much better than the market in Japan. Prices in Japan continue to increase even as selection dwindles. The most interesting products are debuting in America first and rarely make it to Japan. Until the bourbon market in America cools off, I don't see this changing.


  1. Just found your blog and spent an hour or so reading through it. Very interesting to see what's out there. Going to hunt in Osaka to see if I can find some rarities.

  2. Hi,
    Wondering if you can help me out. Sometimes I see some online sites from japan that sell whisky. How do I get them to ship to the US. Thanks