In my last article I introduced JBA whisky. While this whisky is by no means famous, its history is well known by Japanese bartenders, given the name stands for the Japanese Bartenders Association.

Since 1868, Japanese people have gradually become accustomed to Western drinks, and in 1910 the first Western-style bar opened in Ginza. Bartenders who were used to serving wealthy people and foreigners at hotels followed suit and opened their own bars. In 1929, or about 20 years later, the Japanese Bartenders Association was founded.

The first chairman of the association was Suzuki Noboru, who had a great desire to further develop the bar scene in Japan; however, he never really saw his wish materialize. Japan went to war in the 1930s, Western-style bars were outlawed, and many bartenders were sent to the front (and not all of them returned).

After the war, Japan was occupied by the United States. Entertaining American GIs became a large business, and all of a sudden bartenders were in demand. But as there was a serious shortage of labor, becoming a bartender was viewed as the easy way out, and the job acquired a bad reputation. Bars were places men and women freely mingled, and bartenders felt unappreciated.

But that wasn’t all Suzuki had to deal with. In 1955, an internal dispute regarding the policies of the JBA caused the association to split up (a very common occurrence in Japanese politics). The breakaway faction formed a new association called ANBA (All Nippon Bartenders Association).

Suzuki’s endeavors eventually payed off. When Japan prepared to host the 1964 Olympics, the government wanted to clean up Tokyo — including the bars — to give visitors a good impression. So ambitious bartenders worked hard to make their bars serious and respectable.

It was during this time that Suzuki and Toyo Shuzo collaborated to make JBA whisky, which was marketed as a whisky recommended by the pros. Suzuki himself opened a trendy bar in Ginza called JBA Bar Suzuki, where he trained many bartenders who then went all over Japan to open up bars of their own. Many of his students are still operating bars in Japan today.

In 1987, JBA and ANBA finally reconciled their differences and reformed a single organization. The new association was named NBA (Nippon Bartenders Association) and currently has over 5,000 members.

Today, Suzuki Noboru is not well known; even the Internet doesn’t have much info about him. However, Japanese bartenders remember him quite well, and his bar is still operating in Ginza. If you happen to be in Tokyo, you should definitely stop by.

Henry Baldvin