Forgotten Japanese Whiskies of the 1980s and 90s

Aaron Gilbreath
8 min readJan 27, 2020

As distillers launched super premium brands like Yamazaki and Hibiki, they were also selling cheap oddities to young drinkers who weren’t interested.

The Japanese Whisky Family during the 1980s, when things were simpler. And uglier. Photo from

Everyone loves Japanese whisky right now. It’s the hottest booze in the world, but Japanese whisky also experienced a huge boom in postwar Japan. During the 1960s and ’70s, whisky went from a drink of the well-to-do businessman to a drink of the average citizen, and it became common for working-class Japanese men to keep bottles at home. Production boomed.

In the early 1980s, everything changed. Japanese whisky distilleries were starting to lose customers to shōchū. Revised tax laws made imported Scotc cheap, and as drinking habits shifted, whisky lost its allure. In 1984 alone, domestic whisky consumption dropped 15.6 percent in Japan, and Suntory pursued two very different parallel strategies to regain customers. On one hand, Suntory tried to raise its profile by releasing Yamazaki 12, Japan’s first premium mass-market single malt, in 1984. The previous year, it also launched Suntory Q, the first of many brands of light, inexpensive, entry level booze that only faintly resembled whisky.

As Stefan Van Eycken writes in his excellent book Whisky Rising, these strategies are called premiumization and economization, respectively. Economization, Van Eycken writes, “has been dehighligted in Japanese whisky history because, unlike the products that came out of the premiumization drive, those that were developed for economization purposes are now seen as somewhat of an embarrassment. They are long gone, except on the secondary market where specimens still float around, and have been written out of the official history.”

Marketed as “hip” to overcome whisky’s image as stuff old dudes drank, the design of brands like Nikka Yz and Kirin News contrasts dramatically with the popular brands of the 1960s and 70s. Old school bottles of Hi Nikka, Nikka Gold & Gold, and Suntory Old Whisky used the same affectations as Scottish and English products: crests, gold fonts, faceted glass decanters with boldly shaped stoppers, the British spelling of flavour. The hip economy brands used ugly greens and yellows, random geometric shapes with unwelcomingly hard edges, and hints of Tron and Miami Vice.

Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.