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.  

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Four Roses Spicy & Fruity

Distillery:Four Roses
Proof:113 (56.5% ABV)
Price:JPY 300

In the mid 2000s, Four Roses released a set of mini-bottles to demonstrate the versatility of the its different recipes. Each bottle contained one of Four Roses' ten recipes. Instead of listing the recipe (e.g., OBSK) each bottle was give a descriptor such as "spicy," "fruity" or "floral."

I asked Four Roses for more information about the specific recipes contained in these bottles. I received a response from Brent Elliot in which he said that he didn't know the mash bill of these bottles, but that his guess was that the "spicy" was the "K" yeast and the "fruity" was the "O" yeast.

I have only encountered bottles with the descriptors "spicy," "fruity" and "floral." I believe these were the only bottles released, but I cannot be sure.

Four Roses Spicy

The color is amber, a little lighter than the Fruity (see below). There are notes of apple, wet cardboard, vanilla and honey on the nose. The flavor is a departure from the nose. The bourbon is slightly salty with a little bit of peanut butter sweetness and caramel. There are also interesting vegetal flavors, like asparagus. The mouthfeel is thick and satisfying. The finish is short, with notes of vanilla, caramel and Sichuan pepper.

Four Roses Fruity

The color is copper - noticeably dark. The nose has notes of lemon, apple, wet cardboard (again) and cola. There is also something slightly metallic. This bourbon is very very hot on the tongue. There are again vegetal asparagus notes, but this time these notes are complemented by notes of black cherry, leather, vanilla and a little bit of pepper. The finish, in contrast to the "spicy" is long and lingering with notes of plum and black cherry. It remains very hot on the finish.

Conclusion: All in all, these are essentially early versions of the Four Roses Private Selections.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Old Grommes

This is the story of Old Grommes Very Very Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Old Grommes was a brand used for a series of Japan-market bottlings from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. This brand is well known among whiskey enthusiasts in Japan, but is almost unknown in the United States.

In all, there were seven bottlings of Old Grommes. The 12 year 101 proof  is by far the most common.
NameAgeProofBottler Listed on Label
Old Grommes Very Very Rare10 Years90Original Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Very Very Rare12 Years101Original Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Barrel Proof12 Years121Original Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Very Very Rare12 Years125Unknown
Old Grommes Very Very Rare16 Years101Old Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Very Very Rare17 Years101Original Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Very Very Rare20 Years80Original Grommes Co.

Who made Old Grommes? This turns out to be a very difficult question with many answers.

Old Grommes 16 Year
I'll address the easiest bottle first. Old Grommes Very Very Rare 16 Year is different from the other bottlings. It lists a different bottler on the label than the other releases - "Old Grommes Co." instead of "Original Grommes Co." - and the label design and bottle shape are different.

Old Grommes 16 Year is a Julian Van Winkle bottling of the same whiskey that went into A.H. Hirsch. "Old Grommes Co.," the bottler listed on the label, is a trade name registered by Julian Van Winkle. Chuck Cowdery confirms in his book on A.H. Hirsch, and this forum post, that Julian Van Winkle bottled some of the A.H. Hirsch whiskey using the name Old Grommes.  In addition, Shot Bar Bourbon, a now-shuttered bourbon bar in Ginza, also confirms that Old Grommes 12 Year and Old Grommes 16 Year are different bourbon.

Now for the remaining bottlings.

The bottler name listed on the other bottlings is "Original Grommes Co." of Chicago, Illinois. At first, this suggests an association with the firm Grommes & Ulrich, a pre-prohibition grocer and liquor wholesaler in Chicago. The brand Grommes & Ulrich continued in use after prohibition by various companies with no connection to original brand. From 1963 to 2004, the name "Grommes & Ulrich" was trademarked by Consolidated Distilled Products.

A search of the Illinois Secretary of State's business name database for "Original Grommes Co." does not return any results. This means that Original Grommes Co. was not the actual name of the bottler and, instead, was a trade name. Normally, trade names would also have to be registered with the Illinois Secretary of State, but I have found that trade names used for export bottlings are often not registered.

Old Grommes 12y
The first solid lead on the source of Old Grommes comes from a blogger who mentions that Old Grommes was distilled by Jim Beam and aged in Chicago by Consolidated Rectifying. Given that this is an unsourced assertion by a blogger, I think a little more research is necessary.

I'll start with the claim that Old Grommes 12 Year is bottled by Consolidated Rectifying. A search of the TTB's public COLA registry reveals that the holder of DSP-IL-26 registered several COLAs for Old Grommes. Based on other COLA filings, I can determine that Consolidated Rectifying is the holder of DSP-IL-26. Unfortunately, pre-2003 COLAs are not available online. I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for these COLAs, but was told that the records were no longer legible.

This, of course, leads to the question "Who is Consolidated Rectifying?"

Consolidated Rectifying was a subsidiary of Consolidated Distilled Products, the former owner of the Grommes & Ulrich trademark, until it was sold to National Wine and Spirits in 1991.  At that time, National Wine and Spirits also purchased Union Liquor Company (now Union Beverage Company), another subsidiary of Consolidated Distilled Products. Consolidated Distilled Products specialized in liquors, cordials, winevodkagin and (non-bourbon) whiskey.

According to the public COLA registry, Consolidated Rectifying (Vendor ID 001951) was responsible for about 20 other bourbon bottlings, including G&U, Hannah & Hogg and Charter & Oak. I've never heard of any of these other bottlings.

Now, Consolidated Rectifying didn't distill the bourbon in Old Grommes. This is clear both from the company's name (i.e., rectifiers don't distill) and from the fact that there is no evidence that Consolidated Rectifying owned a distillery. Further, Consolidated Distilled Products, the parent company, began as a beer distributor after prohibition and later expanded to distributing other types of alcohol, most notably fine wine. If Consolidated Rectifying didn't make the bourbon, then who did?

The most likely answer to this question is Beam. Nearly every description of Old Grommes mentions that the bourbon was distilled by Jim Beam, but aged in Chicago. Many further describe how Chicago's extreme climate, relative to Kentucky, gives this whiskey unique characteristics. The number of times I've seen these facts repeated makes me think this was originally part of the marketing material for this bourbon. For this reason, I'm inclined to believe it.

There you have it. "Old Grommes," except for the 16 year, is bourbon that was distilled by Beam, aged in Chicago and bottled by Consolidated Rectifying.

Old Grommes 10y; Old Grommes 12y 120 proof; Old Grommes 12y 125 proof; Old Grommes 20y

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Wild Turkey 1855 Reserve

Age:Blend of 6, 8 and 12-year-old whiskies

1855 Reserve Batch. No. W-T-10-92 
Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a blend of 6, 8 and 12 year-old whiskies that was launched in 1991 with
batch W-T-01-91. Why am I talking about Rare Breed when this is a post about 1855 Reserve? 1855 Reserve is simply an export label for Rare Breed and so these are, for the most part, identical bourbons. The name "1855 Reserve" refers to the year that the Austin Nichols was founded. 

Nevertheless, there is not a complete overlap between Rare Breed and 1855 Reserve. The first batch of 1855 Reserve had no corresponding batch of Rare Breed and only certain of the subsequent batches of Rare Breed became batches of 1855 Reserve. 

The first batch of 1855 Reserve was released in 1992 with the batch number W-T-10-92 and at 110.0 proof. No batch of Rare Breed shares this batch number and, further, no batch of Rare Breed was released in 1992. Given that Rare Breed batch W-T-02-91 and 1855 Reserve batch W-T-10-92 share the same proof, it is possible that these are the same bourbons, but, as batches W-T-01-95 and W-T-02-95 of Rare Breed share the same proof even though they are different bourbons, the case is far from settled. 

Interestingly, the batch number for the first release of 1855 Reserve doesn't follow the pattern of Rare Breed batch numbers. Rare Breed batch numbers are composed of the letters "W" and "T" followed two sets of  two digit numbers (e.g., W-T-01-91). The second set of digits corresponds to the year the bourbon was batched and the first set of digits correspond to the batch number for that year (starting over at 01 each year). For example, batch W-T-01-91 was the first batch of 1991. The first batch number for 1855 Reserve, however, started with batch 10 even though it was the first batch of 1992.

In the subsequent years, 1855 Reserve was released only occasionally. Batches were released in 1994, 1995 and 1996.

The following is a complete list of Rare Breed and 1855 Reserve batch numbers. Batch numbers were discontinued in 2014. 

YearLabelBatch NumberProof
1991Rare BreedW-T-01-91109.6
1991Rare BreedW-T-02-91110
19921855 ReserveW-T-10-92110.0
1993Rare BreedW-T-01-93110.8
1993Rare BreedW-T-02-93Unknown
1993Rare BreedW-T-03-93111.4
1994Rare BreedW-T-01-94112.2
19941855 ReserveW-T-01-94112.2
1994Rare BreedW-T-02-94109.6
19941855 ReserveW-T-02-94109.6
1995Rare BreedW-T-01-95109
19951855 ReserveW-T-01-95109
1995Rare BreedW-T-02-95109
1996Rare BreedW-T-01-96108.8
19961855 ReserveW-T-01-96108.8
1997Rare BreedW-T-01-97108.6
1999Rare BreedW-T-01-99108.4
2003Rare BreedWT 03RB108.2

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Early Times Yellow Label

Proof:80 (40% ABV)
Price:JPY 1000

There are two types of Early Times available in Japan - the Brown Label and the Yellow Label. I've Brown Label, but I was curious about how the Yellow Label might be different.
previously reviewed the

Asahi describes the Yellow Label as "a classic bourbon that continues to uphold tradition" with a "light flavor, sweet aroma and nice finish." Asahi also plays up the "charcoal filtered" aspect, but, as all bourbon is charcoal filtered, this isn't a real selling point.

Asahi describes the Brown Label as having a "profoundly complex flavor and a round finish suited to the Japanese palate." It is also described as a full-bodied bourbon with an oaky nose that still retains a florid and delicate flavor. 

As I said in my review of the Brown Label, Early Times in Japan is different from Early Times in the U.S. Early Times in Japan is bourbon while Early Times in the U.S. is merely whiskey. For more information please see my review of the Brown Label. 

The bottles do not yield any clues as to how these two bourbons might be different. The text and design of both of the labels is identical, except, of course, for the color. Similarly, both are 80 proof. The price is usually identical.

The Japanese website for Early Times used to state that the Yellow Label is the Early Times mashbill (72/11/10) and that the Brown Label is the Old Forester masbhill (72/18/10). I don't know if this is still true, but, based on tasting both, I would believe it.  

The nose is thin with notes of apple juice and shortbread. The taste is fruity (think fruit punch) followed by fig newton and vanilla. The finish has a nutty character, with notes of peanuts and walnuts.     

I tasted the Yellow Label side-by-side with the Brown Label and I like the Brown Label a little bit more. The Brown Label has a little more depth - more banana bread and less apples and shortbread. I think Asahi's descriptions of the two bourbons (see above) are accurate.

Verdict: If you're buying one bottle of Early Times, buy the Brown Label.   

Monday, May 16, 2016

Fred Noe Select For Seijo Ishi

Age:6 Years 10 Months
Price:JPY 6,000 - 12,000

Booker's Fred Noe Select for Seijo Ishi is essentially a store selection of Booker's with collectible packaging. There have been three releases of this bourbon (so far):

ReleaseAgeProof# of Bottles
1st6 Years 10 Months1251000
2nd6 Years 10 Months122700
3rd6 Years 10 Months122300

First, let's break down the name. "Booker's," of course, is the name of Jim Beams' cask-strength flagship bourbon. It is called "Fred Noe Select" because Fred Noe is supposed to have specially selected choice barrels of Booker's for this bottling. Finally, it says "for Seijo Ishi" because this is a special bottling for Seijo Ishi, a specialty import grocery store in Japan.

While these may seem to be simply a store bottlings of Booker's, the packaging is specially designed and dramatically different from regular Booker's. Each bottle is numbered and comes in what can best be described as a "mini-barrel." In addition, the label of each release has a different picture of Fred Noe with a glass of Booker's in his hand along with the text "Fred Noe, Master Distiller, bourbon legend and true friend. 1957 -."

While this is essentially a limited edition bottling of Booker's, it differs from normal editions because the number of bottles is so small. Because of the limited number of bottles, far fewer barrels went into each batch of Fred Noe Select than go into a regular batch of Booker's. A regular batch of Booker's is made up of 360 barrels, while each batch of Fred Noe Select is made up of far fewer.

Based on the descriptions of the 1st and 3rd release, there were 10 barrels in the 1st release and 5 barrels in the 3rd release. I am unable to find any information about the number of barrels that made up the 2nd release. This is a surprising number of barrels given the small number of bottles in each batch; it seems like each barrel is yielding 100 bottles or less. For comparison, Four Roses estimates that a barrel used for Four Roses Single Barrel will yield between 150 and 200 bottles.

My guess is that the difference between the Four Roses barrel yields and the barrel yields for these batches of Booker's comes from the barrel position in the rickhouse. Four Roses uses single-story rickhouses and stacks six barrels high, while Beam uses nine-story rickhouses and stacks three barrels per floor. Booker's tends to come from barrels aged on the fifth floor (the "center cut"). Therefore, an average barrel of Booker's is stored much higher than an average barrel of Four Roses. Barrels that are stored higher tend to age faster and lose more to the angel's share meaning that higher stored barrels will yield fewer bottles. 

Given the relatively small batch size, these releases are Booker's are apt to have more character and variability than the standard release. That being said, each of these releases was made from barrels that fit the standard Booker's profile. Even though the 2nd and 3rd release have the same specifications, the product description for the 3rd release specifies that the 3rd release is from a different lot of barrels.  

I'm not going to provide detailed tasting notes because, in short, it taste like Booker's. Nevertheless, I've tasted the second and third release side-by-side and would strongly recommend the second release over the third. You could, however, find the same variation when tasting any too batches of Booker's.

Verdict: If you're a Booker's collector, buy it. If you're faced with the choice of choosing between the second release and the third release, buy the second.  

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Whiskey Bar Etiquette

Specialty whiskey bars, along with coffee shops, are one of my favorite things about Tokyo. The collections (and the bartenders really do consider the bottles behind the bar to be collections) are incredible and the atmosphere intimate. Unfortunately, whiskey bars can seem inaccessible to short-term visitors to Japan.  A minimum level of cultural fluency, however, can make going to whiskey bars in Japan much more fun. It is with this in mind that I've written this short guide.

Party Size

Many of the best and most interesting whiskey bars in Tokyo are small, 12 seats-at-a-counter affairs. If there isn't room for the number of people in your party, the bartender will most likely indicate that the bar is full by crossing his arms or his left and right index fingers to make an "X." Often, waiting for a seat to become available is not permitted. Therefore, its best to keep your party size small. I've had the best luck with parties of two; it can sometimes be difficult with parties of four. 


When entering a whiskey bar, wait in the entryway until you are able to catch the bartenders eye and then indicate the number of people in your party by holding up your fingers. If there is room, you will shortly be directed to a seat. If there isn't, you will most likely be asked to leave (see above).

Selecting Your Whiskey

At most serious whiskey bars, there is not a menu. Bars will often have hundreds of whiskeys and keeping a menu up to date isn't deemed worthwhile. 

There are essentially two choices when it comes to selecting a whiskey: requesting a specific bottle or asking for a recommendation. Normally, bottles are stacked on the shelf two or three deep, and so only half or one-third of a collection is visible. This can make requesting a specific bottle difficult, especially considering that lots of the whiskey is likely to be decades-old bottlings with unfamiliar labels. 

Asking for a recommendation, however, can be similarly fraught since most bartenders do not speak English. If you are able to ask for a recommendation, it's best to describe the general characteristics of the types of whiskey you like (e.g., extra-aged whiskey, high-proof whiskey, etc.). The bartender will then place several bottles in front of you from which to choose, The easiest method is simply to point at the bottle you want.

When requesting a specific bottle or when selecting from the bottles recommended by the bartender, it is perfecting acceptable to inquire about the cost. Simply point to the bottle and ask "ikura?"

Another thing to keep in mind when selecting a whiskey is the fill level of the bottle and how long it is likely to have been open. Oxidation can make the flavor of whiskies that have been open a long time rather flat. 


Once you've selected your whiskey, the bartender's next question will most likely be how you would like it served. There are essentially three possibilities: neat, on the rocks and with soda. 

If you would like the whiskey served neat, ask for it "straight." It will mostly likely be served to you in a shot glass, but it is not expected that you drink it as a shot. 

If you would like the whiskey served on the rocks, ask for "rocks." It will mostly likely be served in an old fashioned glass with a huge spherical or hand cut piece of ice. 

If you would like the whiskey mixed with soda water, ask for a "highball." Most of the whiskey consumed in Japan is consumed as a highball. If you are going to have a highball, I would recommend Suntory Kakubin or Hibiki. 

Servring MethodWord to OrderJapanese Transliteration
On the RocksRockRokku
With SodaHighballHaiboru

The bartender will then make your drink and place it in front of you along with the bottle. Don't worry, you haven't ordered the whole bottle. Feel free inspect the bottle or take a picture. The pour is likely to be very small, less than 1.5 oz. 

Paying Your Tab

When you're finished the easiest way to ask for the check is to get the bartenders attention and cross your left and right index fingers to make an "X." The bartender will then bring you a "receipt," which will mostly likely simply be an amount written on a small sheet of paper. It is unlikely to be itemized. Generally, you can pay the tab at your seat. Tipping is not required or encouraged.