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Japan/America Society of Kentucky

Since 1987

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Bourbon’s Role in

Japan-Kentucky Relations


Scattered throughout picturesque towns and cities in the rolling hills of the Kentucky Bluegrass Region, distilleries have produced America’s native spirit , bourbon whiskey, for hundreds of years. Over 6,000 miles away, producers in Japan have produced their own take on whisky since 1914. Whether it’s American bourbon or Japanese whisky, both regions have emerged as some of the most famous distillers in the world. This shared heritage producing distilled spirits has allowed them to engage more deeply with one another, making bourbon a key fixture of trade and cultural exchange between Kentucky and Japan. 

Kentucky bourbon and Japanese whisky are distinguishable in many ways, but one of the most notable is what they are made of. Bourbon is produced from at least 51% corn, while Japanese whisky is generally made of malted barley like Scotch whisky. While bourbon takes a minimum of two years to mature compared to Japanese whisky’s three years, both beverages tend to be aged much longer (six-to-ten years and five-to-twelve years, respectively). Despite these differences, distillers in both markets have often learned from and collaborated with one another. 

The history of Kentucky bourbon in Japan dates back to the 1970s, as bourbon sales in the United States declined. During this time, American liquor companies, Schenley Industries and Brown-Forman, negotiated distribution partnerships with Suntory Holdings, Japan's largest producer of distilled beverages. In doing so, they worked together to set up bourbon bars across the country, seeking to make customers out of Japan’s youth. Other whiskey brands followed suit and began to distribute in Japan, and soon the industry thrived once again. American whiskey exports to Japan (of which bourbon is a significant component) were valued at over$89 million in 2021, highlighting just how large the market has grown. 

Japanese and American distilleries have a history of collaboration with one another. In 2002, the Tokyo-based Kirin Brewing Company, Ltd. purchased Four Roses Bourbon. More recently Suntory Holdings acquired Beam, Inc., creating Beam Suntory in 2014. The latter, American-founded but a subsidiary of a Japanese multinational, now employs 4,800 employees around the world and produces six kinds of bourbon and six kinds of Japanese whisky for American and Japanese markets alike. Though differing work cultures initially caused strains between Suntory and Beam, the acquisition has strongly benefited both producers. Sales of Jim Beam bourbon increased by nearly 1400% in Japan between 2012 and 2015, and Beam Suntory controlled 19% of the American whisky market by 2016. 

Beam Suntory has also produced some of the most innovative whiskies in recent years. For example, in 2019 Beam Suntory released Legent Bourbon, a bourbon produced using Jim Beam’s standard mash bill (the mix of grains used to produce bourbon) while using different cask finishes to create a blended beverage. Traditionally, bourbon is not blended in the United States, while Japanese whisky lacks a mash bill. As such, both the Japanese and American sides of the company learned from one another and created a new beverage that pushes of the boundaries of both regions’ production traditions. 

Though they are separated by great distance, American and Japanese distilleries have learned much from each other's whisky production processes. Strong American bourbon sales in Japan and a growing interest in Japanese whisky in the United States are testaments to the strength of this relationship. Only time will tell how this relationship develops in the future, but one thing is certain: a passion for fine distilled spirits has become a cornerstone of Kentucky-Japan relations. 

Note: the spelling of ‘whisky’ is quite fluid. Generally, it is spelled ‘whiskey’ when referring to American spirits and ‘whisky’ when referring to Japanese spirits. 

Michael Di Girolamo is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is currently a first-year graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.


How "KFC - kentucky for Christmas"

begin in Japan

Tori C. 

The holiday season has arrived and, even though this year may be different than others, there are some traditions that will find a way to live on no matter what.  Whether that’s pulling out your favorite KFC holiday sweater for your virtual ugly sweater party, cozying up at home with your 11 herbs and spices fire log  or celebrating the Christmas season with a contactless delivery of Japan’s traditional holiday cuisine, a KFC bucket, some traditions are here to stay.

Yes, you read that last one right. Since the 1970s, KFC has been embedded in Japanese culture as a part of the local Christmas tradition and celebrations. This time of year is when KFC Japan sees their highest sales, with December 24 being the busiest day of the year - ten times busier than KFC Japan’s annual average. So go ahead, bundle up in your KFC holiday sweater, gather around your 11 herbs and spices fire log, and I’ll tell you the story of “Kentucky for Christmas” in Japan. 

It all started in the late 1960s when Japanese people began enjoying Christmas as a seasonal event, hosting Christmas parties at home after local confectionery companies started promoting cakes and sweets for kids this time of year. Initially, the celebrations were just for entertaining kids. Then, in the 1970s, KFC came to Japan and, in 1974, launched the first KFC Christmas campaign, selling a bucket of KFC’s famous fried chicken along with a bottle of wine and suggesting it be used for a Christmas party that wasn’t just for kids, but for grownups too. The original idea for the campaign came when a foreign customer who visited KFC in Tokyo on Christmas day said, “I can’t get turkey in Japan, so I have no choice but to celebrate Christmas with Kentucky Fried Chicken”. A team member on the KFC Japan sales team overheard the remark and used it as inspiration to launch the first Christmas campaign and its tagline- Kentucky for Christmas. The campaign was a hit, and Kentucky for Christmas quickly became a tradition across Japan that lives on to this day.

Since its original launch in 1974, KFC Japan’s Christmas campaign has continued to evolve over the years to include Colonel statues dressed in Santa attire outside restaurants across the country and Christmas-exclusive menu items like a premium roast chicken, a locally grown and sourced, premium chicken that’s hand prepared and stuffed with cheese and mushrooms, baked fresh in the restaurant. KFC Japan starts advertising and taking preorders and reservations for its holiday specials as early as late October to get the country excited for the upcoming Christmas season. The famous party bucket also changes each year, featuring different side options, a new festive bucket design and comes with a commemorative plate inside. While the design of the bucket and the sides may change each year, KFC’s famous fried chicken stays at the center of the party bucket, and the Christmas holiday in Japan. Kentucky for Christmas is a Japanese tradition that’s here to stay.

Japan/America Society of Kentucky
464 Chenault Rd.
Frankfort, KY 40601
(502) 209-9630

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