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Monday, January 2, 2023

How Japan Invented Premium Bourbon

In the past, I’ve illustrated how marketing departments (especially bourbon ones) like to play fast-and-loose with the facts.  Buffalo Trace credits Elmer T. Lee for the creation of Blanton’s, the first commercially available single barrel bourbon.  On the Blanton’s website, it mentions how Lee was, “Tasked with creating a bourbon of exceptionally high quality.”  He definitely had a role in making Blanton’s, but it wasn’t his idea.

In the 1980s, bourbon exploded in Japan, especially among young adults.  Their parents drank scotch, so they drank bourbon.  I.W. Harper was especially popular.  In order to meet Japanese demand, owners Schenley had to stop selling it in the US.  Bob Baranaskas and Fergie Falk of Ancient Age and George T. Stagg wanted to take things to the next level.  They felt the industry needed an “ultra-premium” product.  This is where Elmer T. Lee enters our story.

Upon consulting with Lee, Falk and Baranaskas learned how former master distiller, Colonel Blanton, would entertain dignitaries by handpicking and bottling special or “honey” barrels.  It was perfect.  A single barrel would be perceived as scarce, and people are generally willing to pay a premium for something rare.  Blanton’s was launched in 1984.  Back then, it’d set you back a jaw-dropping 25 dollars!  In the US, where bourbon was rarely more than 10 bucks, the price didn’t sit well with customers.  In Japan, however, it was an entirely different story.  The asking (and getting) price in some stores exceeded $100.

Here’s the part that might blow your mind.  Blanton’s isn’t a Buffalo Trace (Sazerac) product.  Blanton’s is, and always has been, owned by Age International, which is currently a subsidiary of Takara Holdings, a Japanese multinational based in Kyoto.  It’s made and warehoused at Buffalo Trace (Takara sold the distillery to Sazerac in 1992), but the brand is owned by Takara.  Sazerac just has the distribution rights for Blanton’s in the US.  Now you know the story of how Japan invented premium bourbon.

To borrow a line from Forrest Gump, “(Single barrels) are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”  I’ve had some excellent Blanton’s, and some just OK ones.  No two Blanton’s (unless they come from the same barrel) are going to be exactly alike.  This is very much a rye-forward expression defined by baking spices, most notably cinnamon.  Caramel, oak, vanilla.  A touch of citrus.  Here’s hoping you live in a place where you can buy one without taking out a second mortgage.

Happy dramming,


Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. -  Charles Perrault,  The Sleeping Beauty in ...