Japan’s Time Machine into American Whiskey History


From the front, Rogin’s Tavern looks like any other non-descript commuter bar wedged between two train lines in the Moriguchi area of Osaka prefecture. There are countless small, well-stocked watering holes in Japan, and few of them are notable. But there is one giveaway to the secrets that await inside this particular one: a giant neon sign with a bottle of export-only Wild Turkey 8-year-old on it four stories up invites you to enter this time machine into American whiskey history.

 

 

Before Prohibition, bourbon was king in the United States. But with the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, most American distilleries ceased operation. The populace would still drink, but mostly product smuggled in across the borders in the form of the softer blended Scotch and Canadian whisky, which shifted the tastes of American drinkers over the next 13 years. Bourbon stormed back, of course, but while overcompensating for the lack of production during National Prohibition, the distilleries were dealt another blow by the rebellious movements of the 60s and 70s that were all about rejecting the previous generation’s ideas and habits--that included dad’s whiskey. A shift to consuming clear spirits became the norm, and the bourbon industry was all of a sudden sitting on a lot of product that Americans didn’t want to buy.

At the same time, American culture was being exported around the world (along with our much heralded freedom and liberty.) Japan was in love with Marlboros, Harley Davidson motorcycles, and, of course, bourbon. Several companies realized this and began to produce bourbon explicitly for Japanese export, among them Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey.

This wasn’t enough for a young Seiichiro Tatsumi, who was spending time in Lexington, Kentucky in 1977 and began to amass a collection of American whiskey. He purchased his first lot of Very Old Fitzgerald, a premium bourbon produced at the now mothballed Stitzel Weller Distillery that was founded by Pappy Van Winkle, for $15.99 a bottle. He began driving the back roads of middle America at night, looking for the lit up liquor store signs and cleaning out the stocks of bourbon in the basement that no one else wanted to buy. Back in Japan, enthusiastic drinkers consumed the bourbon that Tatsumi transported back, by the shipping container.

 

 

Tatsumi is the proprietor of Rogin’s Tavern, but the building has been owned by his family for 16 generations. Many businesses have been run out it, including a hotel, leather shop, and, as Tatsumi will openly admit, a brothel operated by his grandmother. But today the building is a bar that houses some 500+ bottles of antique American whiskey that Tatsumi has collected over the years.


Bottles of Old Overholt from three different decades.

“I’m just a bartender, nothing special. I’ve been collecting for a long time, that’s why I have all of it,” says Tatsumi as he casually takes a shot of an Old Overholt from 1976 between puffs of a cigar on the second floor of the bar, which contains the majority of his older bottles. He begins to line up bottles of Old Overholt from various decades to demonstrate the difference in taste and provenance between the older product and the rye now made by Jim Beam, the current owner of the brand.

Tatsumi’s most prized whiskies are pre-Prohibition bottles and the pints sold for “medicinal purposes” during Prohibition. A bottle of Bottled-in-Bond Old Sunnybrook distilled in the fall of 1912 and bottled in 1918 was a little cloudy, so no doubt had lost a bit of alcohol. But the spirit was very fruity on the nose, and still had a spicy kick with a hint of elderflower. A pour of 7-year-old Crestmore Bourbon that was intended for medicinal usage was extremely tannic, enough to cure any ailment during Prohibition (usually sobriety.)

 

 

Although America has had a bourbon renaissance of its own in the last decade, bars stateside that serve up pre-Prohibition whiskey will generally charge you a few hundred to over a thousand dollars a pour, the price of a plane ticket to Japan. Tatsumi seems to do it out of a pure love of American whiskey, pulling bottles off the wall and pouring at will for reference depending on which direction the conversation is going. At that point, the size of the pours will be completely arbitrary--and so will the final price, which may clock in at only a few thousand yen (under a hundred dollars), well worth it to travel a hundred years back in time into whiskey history.

 

 

Not going to Osaka? Bar Hermit in Tokyo is a second floor watering hole with two rooms--a “Scotch Side” on the left, and a “Bourbon Side” on the right. The selection is not as large as Rogin’s Tavern, but there is enough even for a seasoned whiskey enthusiast.