Before its native whisky became the style du jour across the globe, Japan’s greatest contribution to whiskey culture (or American whiskey culture, at least) was more fundamental. In the 1970s and 1980s, American whiskey was down for the count, beaten out by vodka, rum and gin. There was just no thirst for premium bourbons — except in Japan.
Raised on lofty age statement scotch whisky, Japanese drinkers wanted the old American bourbon America didn’t. The result was a flood of new bourbons that only ever saw the light of day in Japan. And despite the return of bourbon’s popularity in the land of its provenance, Japan continues to receive exclusive gems from some of America’s most notable producers. From Four Roses to Wild Turkey, here are the bourbons to hunt down on your next (or first) trip overseas.
Four Roses Super Premium
Four Roses’s history is inextricably tied to Japan. To survive American whiskey’s down years, the company shifted its gaze to more fruitful Asian and European markets — as proof, its straight bourbon didn’t return to the U.S. until 2002.
Vestiges of its overseas empire can be found on the back shelves of dusty liquor stores across Asia, but the company’s Super Premium bottling is its most readily available product there. Sometimes called Four Roses Platinum, it’s in almost every liquor and grocery store in Japan for the equivalent of $50 USD. Think of it as a fruitier, slightly more-mature version of Four Roses Small Batch.
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel
Americans accustomed to liquor stores being sold out of Blanton’s 93 proof, high-rye single barrel bourbon might consider a trip to Japan. The country is one of few regularly stocked with Blanton’s Green label, Gold label and Straight from the Barrel, the only barrel-proof Blanton’s out there. Bottled at a heavy 130 proof, it’s Blanton’s with a pedal to the metal. Hot tip for those who can’t track it down: check the liquor store in the basement of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. You’ll find it for $85 to $100 USD.
Wild Turkey 13-Year Distiller’s Reserve
Japan-exclusive bourbon aficionados will likely shudder at this recommendation, but not because it’s bad. Until recent years, everyone’s favorite 101 proof bourbon was available in Japan at a more mature 12-year age statement. That bottle was discontinued. What we’re left with is an older, slightly lower proof whiskey that lacks the sucker punch of 101 but is markedly more drinkable.
Evan Williams Red
You can find Evan Williams 12-year-old bourbon at the distillery’s Louisville gift shop but it’ll run you nearly $200. In Japan, it’s available in most stores for under $30. Other than the infamous 23-year-old offering, Red Label is the most mature Evan Williams out there. In the glass it’s a richer, better Evan Williams Black. What’s not to like?
Ancient Ancient Age 8-Year
Yes, you read ancient twice. This is a deep-cut bourbon, distilled using Buffalo Trace Distillery’s high-rye Mashbill #2 (same as Blanton’s). Ancient has run through a number of owners but has always been distilled by Buffalo Trace. For those curious about the quality: it’s fine, but its connection to Buffalo Trace makes the $15 to $20 pickup no-brainer.
Other Notable Whiskeys to Pick Up Abroad
Blanton’s Gold: When it comes to proof, Gold sits between standard Blanton’s and Straight from the Barrel. Like the barrel-proof option, it’s harder to find outside of urban areas. Expect to pay anywhere from $60 to $90 for it.
Four Roses Black Label: Not much is known about Four Roses Black other than the fact that it’s dirt cheap and mixes into a punch really, really nicely. It’s everywhere Super Premium is, but it usually goes for about $20.
Wild Turkey 12-Year: It’s discontinued, but it’s what whiskey nerds would be looking for. Look for it in stores off the beaten path. (Rest assured, every store in Tokyo has been picked over by hunters well before you arrive.)
I.W. Harper 12-Year: Some will call I.W. Harper a hype play, but the slightly mysterious 12-year-old bourbon (no one knows for sure who made it) isn’t too expensive and looks great in a liquor cabinet. And if you believe the rumors that it was distilled by Four Roses, it’s a perfect holiday gift with some backstory.
Evan Williams 23-Year: Another famous discontinued offering. Most reviews indicate Evan Williams 23-year is painfully oaky, suggesting it’s perhaps too old. That’s no matter. If you find it, buy it. Bottles of it go on the secondary market for $500 and up and it’s not any cheaper at the Evan Williams gift shop — when it’s even available.