How Japan Saved Bourbon Part 1: Evan Williams Black, Old Ezra 12, and Evan Williams 12
Editor: This is a 2-part feature on how Japan saved the US bourbon industry. Do check out Part 2 here.
John is a cocktail and spirits enthusiast born and raised in Manila. His interest started with single malts in 2012, before he moved into rum and mezcal in search of malterntaitves – and a passion for travel then helped build his drinks collection.
Article first published on Malt Review UK here.
A combination of Heaven Hill purchasing Samson & Surrey, as well as news of Japan potentially opening again for tourism, made me write this piece.
I can’t help but wonder if this acquisition played a part in why Heaven Hill took so long to do right by their employees. Separately, the idea of being in Japan again made me go on a Japan binge. This binge made me want to talk about these two Heaven Hill produced Japan-only bourbons. One is an Old Ezra 12 101. The other is Evan Williams 12 101.
From what I can gather, the Old Ezra 12 has been discontinued. It’s said to be Heaven Hill distillate bottled for Luxco, which they sold to Japan. It’s such a shame, as I’m a fan of this bourbon and only have this one bottle. But, as demand for bourbon is as high as ever, I guess Heaven Hill stopped selling aged stock to Luxco when their contract ended. I hope Luxco can re-make this expression once their house-made stocks are old enough.
Okay, I lied a bit. The Evan Williams 12 is not really a Japan-only release. This is something you can only buy in Japan and at the Heaven Hill distillery. Aside from that, I don’t know much else about it. I’m just including the Evan Williams Black Label to provide myself a benchmark.
Whisk(e)y geeks will know that the 80s were not a good time for whisk(e)y. A lot of Scotch single malts, such as Littlemill, Brora, and St. Magdalen, are considered legendary and fetch a hefty price largely due to the respective distilleries closing during this time. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue (fingers in this case) when I said the 80s weren’t good for whisk(e)y; that’s because the American whiskey industry was also suffering during these years. This is a less-known fact but, if it weren’t for Japan, the revival of American whiskey would surely have been slower. There’d also be a lot more reviving of old recipes and brands going around.
A mix of spending a lot of time in Japan and having focused on American whiskey for a couple of years allowed me to hear bits and pieces of how Japan saved the American whiskey industry. I’ve heard that the 80s was a time when American culture became popular there, meaning the Japanese took a liking to drinking bourbon and wearing American apparel. But, as drinkers, we know that accurate information and alcohol rarely go hand-in-hand. So, I was fortunate to come across this ABV Network podcast interview with Chuck Cowdery on how Japan saved Bourbon.
According to Chuck, the American whiskey industry boomed after World War II, when there was more demand than supply. The boom was said to have lasted from the late 40s to the 60s. A lot of distilleries opened up in this time period. Bourbon sales peaked in 1970 at 80 million cases. It went down sharply after that, dropping as low as 32 million cases per year.
The lack of supply isn’t surprising, since Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933. Aged and aging whiskey was just dumped by the government. America joined WWII in December of 1941. Eight years may seem long, but it’s a small amount of time for spirits that need to be aged. We also need to factor in how many distilleries closed, or were not operating, during this period. Then, add the fact that American distilleries, whether they liked it or not, produced neutral alcohol for the war effort rather than whiskey.
American whiskey’s worst decline was during the 1980s. This was also when it was more noticed. During these times, distilleries would start to only be open a few months a year, or operate a few days a week.
Chuck mentions a few factors that caused the whisk(e)y glut. One is the availability of alternative intoxicants. Two is that the American youth of that time didn’t want to drink what their parents drank. Third is brands that had “old” in them started to not do well.
By alternative intoxicants, I’m assuming this refers to illegal drugs. Wine and other spirits started to become more popular, which is interesting. Ever since I’ve learned of the 1980s Scotch glut, I’ve always heard of illegal drugs being cited as a reason. But. it was always mentioned by older gentlemen in a joking or guessing manner. So, it’s actually refreshing to hear a well-known whiskey historian mention it. Plus, illegal drugs becoming more popular in the 80s makes sense, with Pablo Escobar becoming active in that decade.
The American youth not wanting to drink what their parents drank seems to be tied in with the rising popularity of other liquors. For example, vodka started to take off in the US during the 70s. Looking back at movies set in the 80s, folks are shown to drink sparkling wine and other liquors as well.
Interestingly, Chuck says that brands with “old” in the name didn’t do well, while brands with people’s names like Jack Daniels, Evan Williams and Jim Beam did well. Not wanting to drink something with “old” in the name seems to tie in with not wanting to drink with what parents of the youth drank in those days.
Funnily, not wanting to drink what their parents drank in Japan is a huge reason why American whiskey became big in Japan. I’m guessing the Japanese youth’s parents drank liquor like shochu, nihonshu (sake), Scotch and the early forms of Japanese whiskey. The timing of American culture becoming popular with the Japanese in the 80s must have felt heaven sent for those involved in American whiskey production.
Bourbon started to get a lot of love in Japan in 1975. Chuck says this was started by someone who handled international business for Schenley. Despite being a bottom shelf, it was IW Harper (from Bernheim Distillery) that started the bourbon boom in Japan.
Schenley was said to have noticed a strong on-premise drinking culture in Japan. With their partner at that time, Suntory, this prompted them to create bars with an American image to expose consumers to all types of Americana.
It also helped that the Japanese were familiar with Scotch. This meant that they had a taste for old whisky. They were said to ask for bourbon with age statements, which was something the distilleries had a lot of in stock and were more than willing to get rid of.
Wow, I didn’t expect this to go so long. So, this is it for now. Chuck mentions how some popular bourbon brands started thanks to Japan. I’ll write part two of this soon, which will talk about that.
Evan Williams Black Label – Review
86 proof (43% ABV). USD $14 locally.
On the nose: A hot, sharp and bold wave of creamed sweet corn, oak, vanilla, cherries, cinnamon, honey and fresh peaches. Before, In-between and after are short and subtle aromas of leather, wet carton, orange bitters, cloves, poire, and orange peel oils.
In the mouth: A lot lighter in intensity compared to the nose. The oak, vanilla, cinnamon, honey and creamed corn envelope the mouth. After are light bursts of mostly bitter tastes. I get cloves, leather, wet carton, toothpick, fresh peaches, orange peel oil and more honey.
An entry level bourbon I can’t complain about. The nose may lead you to expect more, but this is the case for most whisk(e)y. This is solid for the price, and you can’t go wrong with this. I’d prefer this any day over the entry level blended Scotches.
Old Ezra Aged 12 Years 101 Proof – Review
101 Proof (50.5% ABV). USD $40 in Japan (2016)
On the nose: Very floral for a bourbon. This is almost like a Jim Rutledge-era regular Four Roses Single Barrel floral. I get medium aromas of fresh peaches, Japanese pears, blood orange, tangerines and floral honey. There are sharp but short sensations of cloves, tannins, sour plums and ethanol at the tail-end.
As I nose this again, I get sweeter notes. Short and medium aromas of sweeter style honey, ripe papayas, vanilla, cherries, cinnamon syrup and sour plums come out.
In the mouth: More bourbon-y. I get medium tastes of honey, vanilla, cinnamon syrup, tangerines and sour cherry. After another taste, I get light muscovado sugar, coconut sugar syrup, honey, ripe cherries, sour plums, toffee, toasted coconut chips, leather and cloves.
This is very different from the usual Evan Williams and other Heaven Hill profiles I know, my references being the Evan Williams Black Label, Single Barrel, and Elijah Craig 12, and Henry McKenna 10.
I’m more inclined to think that fermentation is the big difference here. Since Luxco bought this from Heaven Hill, maybe the contract stipulates using a different yeast, or the length of fermentation is different from the standard products?
This is more of a wild guess, as I only started drinking contemporary Heaven Hill bourbon in 2013 or 2014, but: what if this is what 80s or 90s Heaven Hill bourbon was like?
Evan Williams Aged 12 Years 101 Proof – Review
101 Proof (50.5% ABV). USD $30 in Japan (2019).
Color: As dark as Old Ezra 12.
On the nose: A lot of red fruits. The label’s color matches my initial impression of this. I get sharp and medium aromas of red cherries & raspberries with custard, ripe plums and red grape skins. Underneath is a mellow, slightly long and round aroma of honey.
Shortly after are subtle and short notes of I get date molasses, pomegranate syrup, blood orange and muscovado sugar syrup. Leather and oak come out at the end.
In the mouth: Not as fruity on the nose. It’s more bitter here as if the fruit skins and peels are the only ones I taste. I get medium tastes of leather, blood orange, red plum skin, red cherry juice concentrate, raspberries and red grape skin. A follow-up of date molasses and honey comes out at the end.
Misleading like the Black Label. I’m disappointed. I was expecting this to be a new favorite as I just opened this. I thought it would be more fruity as it opened up, but this dram was left to oxidize for 30 minutes before I started reviewing. Then I nosed and tasted it over the course of another 30 minutes.
The only upside is for a 12 year old bourbon, this is pretty cheap, and it’s different. In a blind tasting, I wouldn’t expect this to be from Heaven Hill. I wouldn’t even expect this to be a bourbon. I’m curious if this is really what 12 year old Evan Williams tastes like, or if this is assigned to age in barrels charred differently, or in special sections of warehouses?
Needless to say, this bourbon is very different from the Old Ezra 12, which shares the same proof and age.
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