Poet's Notebook: Japanese Bourbon

Peter Meinke waxes philosophical on Jim Beam, Suntory and how good whiskey brings people together.

| March 03, 2014
"Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . ."

Our parents (fathers particularly) were disappointed when we traded in our all-American Dodge Coronet for a VW van. We were freezing in Minnesota, and the Dodge’s power windows had stuck in the open position, its rusting tailpipe coughing like an old hot rod
. When a friend bought a new Dodge Dart, I told him we had a Dodge, too, but it wasn’t exactly a Dart.

By the time we’d worked our way through a few Toyotas to our current Honda, our dads had given up: it was too hard to tell what country owned what car, and even what parts of the car were made where. ‘At least we still have Jim Beam,’ a friend said one night, pouring another one.

Well, so much for that. Last month Japan’s Suntory Company bought Beam, Inc., maker of Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark bourbon, for sixteen billion dollars. Americans know about Suntory from the 2003 movie, Lost in Translation, where a fading actor (Bill Murray) goes to Tokyo because he’s been offered two million dollars to make an ad for Suntory whiskey. The movie’s a sad love story (involving Scarlet Johansson, the provocative voice in “Her”), but Murray’s reluctant ad-making is hilarious.[jump]We have a cheerier connection with Suntory, from the same year as the movie. On a glorious September morning in rural Virginia, I had a few celebratory drinks with a dignified gentleman named Teiichi Aoki, the uncle of our son’s charming bride, Aya Aoki. Aya’s relatives had flown in from Tokyo for the wedding, performed under a huge oak tree, surrounded by the Shenandoah mountains and guests from all over the world. Teiichi and I had spoken to the group, and though our verbal communication was limited, we agreed it was good to sit and quietly admire the handsome couple, toasting their future health and happiness. We clinked our glasses enough times to ensure their success.

That Christmas we received a package from Japan: a short, warm note and a bottle of Suntory’s gold-medal Yamazaki whiskey, which we received regularly for years, until Teiichi passed away in 2012. It’s a fine whiskey, and I wish I could still sit with him, talking about the kids, and debating which is better, Yamazaki or Maker’s Mark. It would be a long conversation.

Although rooted in the Kentucky hills, Maker’s Mark, with its distinctively shaped bottle dipped in red wax, was introduced to me by a humorist from New York. I once was commissioned to interview Jean Shepherd, then living on Sanibel Island (where he died, in 1999). Years earlier, I’d been a fan of his long-running late night radio show on WOR, with its subversive wit — a precursor of both Jerry Seinfeld and John Stewart.

Anyway, the first words he said to me, rather abruptly, were, “Have you ever had Maker’s Mark?” I recognized the name from ads — "The Ambassador of Bourbon” — but our budget hadn’t allowed us to go above Jim Beam in price. I don’t think the magazine ever published the interview, maybe because after an afternoon of listening and laughing (and sipping) my notes made little sense. I wrote to Shepherd not long afterward, saying that I’d impulsively bought my first bottle of Makers Mark, after getting paid $50 in cash for a reading.

We really are citizens of the world, or should be. I don’t drink Coca-cola — bad for your teeth — but its Super Bowl ad, sung in seven languages, was right on target. It’s complicated, of course: boundaries make us feel safer; but in the long run, they don’t work, as Robert Frost implies in his poem. Look around. Boundaries in all areas are falling down. Good bourbon has brought much conviviality into this world, and will continue to do so, no matter who owns it.

I’ll drink to that—maybe on St. Patty’s Day. Sláinte, Jean! Kampai, Uncle Teiichi!

"He moves in darkness, as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees . . .
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

- both quotes from “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost (1874-1963)


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From an (ex) Maker's Mark drinker - do a blind taste test between Maker's Mark and another wheated bourbon, Rebel Yell (at half the price). You're welcome!

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Posted by grisgris on 03/06/2014 at 4:33 PM
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