Forgotten Japanese Whiskies of the 1980s and 90s

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

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

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.

It didn’t work.

Here is a chronological tour of the Japanese whisky history that Suntory and Nikka would rather you forget.

Suntory Q

This was the whisky that started the whole economization boom.

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"It came in three versions,” Whisky Rising reports, “Q1000, Q500 and Q250 (40%abv). The number was a reference to volume (in ml). The presentation was designed to be everything that whisky wasn’t perceived to be: slick, hip and modern. It didn’t look like anything that their dads would have picked up, and that was the point, of course: reeling in young people. It was dirt cheap (Y2,200 for the liter version) and ‘light & smooth’ as it said on the bottle. Commercials on TV featured the band Duran Duran.”

And here’s a set of Q glasses that were part of the brand’s promotion:

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Kirin-Seagram News

Kirin quickly followed suit that August with News 1000, and 500. They copied Suntory’s numbering system, made their design uglier, and even put “Light & Smooth” on their bottles. “You can enjoy it on the rocks, with water or with anything you like,” said the label. “This whisky can create your new lifestyle.” That heavy-handed slogan is pretty on the nose. Whisky as a lifestyle sounds dangerous. Also, if I was 21 and reading that I’d think, Don’t tell me what to do.

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Trying to one-up Suntory’s use of Duran Duran, Kirin got Jan Michael Vincent, from Airwolf, to appear on TV commercials:

And on print ads like this, from 1985:

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For sale on ebay for $20! Is he asleep in a convertible? Sunning himself on a beach in a sweater? Tell me he’s not back in that jacuzzi.

After Vincent’s alcoholism became public, Kirin pulled his commercials.

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Want a Kirin New keychain for $10? Me either.

Suntory 21

The 1980s were filled with many regretable trends: neon, rampant cocaine use, Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economics. Suntory 21 wasn’t as bad as those. Named for Japan’s drinking age, it wears its target demographic on its sleeve. I actually like the font Suntory used for it. 21 is Japan’s least dated, least offensive looking economization brand, even if 21’s contents did not taste as good as its exterior looked.

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Suntory 21. Photo from Catawiki
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Cool jazzy glasses. This advertising campaign featured a French piano duo named the Labèque sisters. I bought some because I like cats and piano jazz and, well, I’m insane.
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A Zippo, part of 21’s big promotional push.
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Look, a triangular serving tray for your glass and cigs. Random geonetrical motifs are very 80s. Photo from Buyee

Nikka Yz

Would you like a bracing splash of after shave? Oh, sorry, this is whisky. Apparently, Nikka Yz tastes as much like whisky as it looks.

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Poto from w.atwiki.jp

Nikka No Side

Bottled at 35%abv, this line was, according to Whisky Rising, “made with malt, grain and spirits, it was sort of halfway between a whisky and a vodka.” 1,000 Yen got you 900ml, not that you’d want it. Still note sure what the name means, but here are some branded glasses:

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Sanraku-Ocean MOO

Although the name conjures pastoral scenes of cows nibbling grass, MOO was a play on the word “Smooth,” as in sMOOth. “It’s unclear whether the pun on the Japanese word mu (pronounced like ‘moo’ but shorter, and meaning ‘nothingness’) was intentional or not,” writes Stefan Van Eycken. “It cost next to nothing and tasted like it, too.” Jan Michael Vincent, from Airwolf, appeared on TV commercials. He was very popular back then. This whisky was not. Like all of these brands, it didn’t say on the shelves long.

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Kirin-Seagram Saturday 1 and Saturday 2

Kirin-Seagram released Saturday 1 and Saturday 2, its so-called “High Performance Whisky,” toward the end of the 80s. Clearly branding for weekend fun, Saturday 1 was labeled as “Light & Smooth,” Saturday 2 was the blend with “Mellow and Body.” Across both versions, the gendered marketing was the same: “Saturday is the high-quality whisky for the new age suitable for sophisticated men wishing to relax and express their desired way of life.”

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Suntory Cobra

In 1989, Suntory released Hibiki, which would become one of the most beloved, iconic, and award-winning whiskies of all time. Imagine that legend existing in the same world as a Suntory brand named after a snake.

In one last desperate attempt to capture the youth market, Suntory bottled Cobra at 39%abv, priced it at 1,000 Yen for 500 ml, and painted its label with comic art style to attract young consumers. Its low abv was also designed to skirt a tax surcharge that Japanese law required from beverages 40% abv and above. You have to admit the label is cool: “Hi! What’s Up? Why don’t we get together and make a wild trio? Just you, me and Cobra! Cobra goes easy with soda. We’ll just relax and sip it, real slow. Cobra and soda wil make your night… and mine, too. Remember the name: COBRA! See ya!”

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Image from Global Rakuten.

Now imagine that co-existing on liquor store shelves with this luxurious faceted bottle, the first Hibiki:

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Drinkers in the US might know Cobra as the name of a cheap 40 ounce malt liquor, and as the enemy in GI Joe cartoons. Few probably remember Suntory Cobra, and Suntory prefers it that way.

Sanraku-Ocean 30–0

In 1989, Sanraku-Ocean released a 30%abv one called 30–0. That, Van Eycken points out, was pronounced thirty-love, “as in tennis, a reference to the unusually low bottling strength.” It isn’t even listed in the Whiskybase database. Google images are non-existant.

The bigger lesson is that whisky is hard to market to young people, and it needs to just taste like whisky. That taste is why people like it. These brands were doomed as much by economics and cultural trends as their poor flavor and packaging.

Stefan Van Eycken’s book Whisky Rising contains the best English-language account of this chapter of Japanese whisky history. I relied heavily on his research, so if you enjoyed this history, I strongly urge you to buy his book. You can occassionally find these bottles for sale on Japanese secondary market sites like Buyee and at auctions at Whisky Auctioneer and Scotch Whisky. The flavors might not be pleasant, but it’s interesting to taste the constantly evolving nature of Japanese whisky. Nikka and Suntory succeed partly because they are dedicated to change, never staying beholded to either Scottish or Japanese tradition. If their experiments fail, they make new ones and move on. They seem to treat beloved discontinued whiskies like Taketsuru 17 and Yoichi 15 the same way. Errors like Cobra should not be discounted from history, but remembered for the way they fit into Japanese distilling’s true modus operundi: to always make better whisky than they did the year before. Kanpai.

Written by

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

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