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The house of Suntory in 100 years: the evolution of a Whisky Brand

Japanese Whisky | suntory

August 23, 2023

Everything you need to know about Suntory from its origins to its 100th anniversary in 2023.

The House of Suntory, one of Japan’s most famous whisky companies, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. We have already talked about this label in the past and its origins. This time, to mark the momentous occasion, we will delve a little deeper into everything there is to know about this delicious brand. 

Behind the Scene of Suntory and its Origins

The House of Suntory was established in 1899 by Shinjiro Torii, who had a dream of creating an original Japanese whisky. 

Shinjiro Torii was a pharmaceutical wholesaler who had done well for himself. In 1907, he decided to expand his business by importing Spanish port wines. He quickly gained success, and his brand, Akadama Port Wine (Akadama literally meaning “red ball,” a euphemism for the sun), became a dominant force in the Japanese market.

Torii was also a big fan of whisky, a drink that was not yet popular in Japan. The import of whisky was minimal, and the only local variety had little in common with genuine whisky, other than the name and colour. Nevertheless, Torii wanted to change Japan’s whisky landscape and started to think about a whisky distillery in the country.

Torii had a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of Japanese culture. He knew that the Japanese palate preferred a more delicate and nuanced flavour profile than Scottish or American whiskies. He also knew that the Japanese climate was different from the Scottish and American climates and that this would require him to use different ingredients and techniques.

Having this in mind, in 1923 – helped by Masataka Taketsuru – Torii established the Yamazaki Distillery, Japan’s first and oldest malt whisky distillery, to achieve his goal. Eventually, after some trials and errors, Torii’s vision came into being and Suntory became a success in the whisky industry. 

Shinjiro Torii 

A Japanese twist to whisky

When Shinjiro Torii built the Yamazaki distillery, he wasn’t just looking to create a simple distillate that would meet the tastes of his fellow citizens. He wanted to create a whisky that would be a true reflection of Japanese culture and history, a whisky that would be complex, nuanced, and delicate.

Many people thought Torii was crazy to try to create Japanese whisky. They believed that the Japanese palate would not be able to appreciate a whisky that was made in the Scottish style. But Torii was determined to prove them wrong. He spent years experimenting with different recipes and techniques. He finally created a whisky that he was proud of, but it was not a success. The Japanese people did not like the whisky, and it was discontinued.

Torii learned from his mistakes. He realized that he could not simply recreate what the Scots had been doing for hundreds of years. He had to find a way to make a whisky that was uniquely Japanese.

Torii turned to the Japanese tradition of craftsmanship. He believed that if he took the same meticulous care in making his whisky as the Japanese did in making their other products, he would be able to create a whisky that the Japanese people would love. Eventually, Torii’s hard work paid off. In 1929, he finally achieved his goal with the release of Shirofuda whisky. Shirofuda was an instant success, and it helped to popularize whisky in Japan.

Spreading Whisky Culture in Japan

Suntory opened whisky bars around Japan in 1955 to spread knowledge and passion for Japanese whisky. These bars were not just places to drink whisky but also places to socialize and experience modern life. They helped to promote the image of whisky as a drink that was associated with success and sophistication. The bars were a success, and they helped to introduce Japanese whisky to a wider audience.

Keizo Saji and its new distillery

During the same decade, Shinjiro Torii’s son, Keizo Saji, furthered his father’s vision with the construction of another distillery, Hakushu. Hakushu is located in the mountains of Japan, surrounded by forests. It is one of the highest distilleries in the world. 

A couple of years later, in 1982, Keizo Saji took another step forward and decided to build a new distillery on the misty, calm shore of Chita Peninsula: Chita Distillery, dedicated to producing high-quality grain whisky.

Today, the House of Suntory is an undeniable success. So much so that we are writing this article specifically to celebrate its 100th anniversary! But before we see what the people at Suntory are planning for this special occasion, let’s explore their whiskies together.

Suntory’s whiskies profiles

Unlike in Scotland, where most distilleries produce one style of whisky, Suntory takes a different approach. Their three distilleries, Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita, each produce a variety of different whisky profiles.

Indeed, Suntory pioneered the tsukuriwake technique, which means “diversity in making.” This technique involves producing a wide variety of whisky profiles at each distillery by altering production variables throughout the year. This includes things like the shape of the stills, the level of peat used, and the type of casks used.

This allows Suntory to create malt and blended whiskies that are intricately layered and complex. Each whisky has its own unique flavour profile, which is a result of the different production variables that were used to create it.

As a result, each whisky from Suntory’s distilleries is quite different from the others. 

Japanese Philosophy and Whisky

The Japanese have a deep connection to nature. They believe that nature is their ultimate inspiration and guiding force. They have a special reverence for it and believe that nameless spirits, called “eight million gods,” reside within every pebble, raindrop, and seed.

This connection to nature is reflected in Suntory spirits. Every step of the process is carefully controlled, from the selection of the ingredients to the ageing of the whisky. Suntory spirits are more than just a beverage. They are a work of art, a fusion of nature and culture. Suntory’s whiskies are made with the finest ingredients, and they are crafted with a deep respect for nature. This unique fusion is what makes Suntory spirits so special.

Now, we will briefly introduce you to what are the three flagship whiskies of the brand. But remember. Each bottle of Suntory is a world unto itself. So don’t be afraid to explore!

Suntory Whisky Range

Yamazaki Whisky

Yamazaki is Suntory’s oldest and most famous whisky. It is made with a blend of malt whiskies that have been aged in mizunara oak casks. Deep and multi-layered, Yamazaki has a distinctive aroma of mizunara and stone fruits with hints of cinnamon.

Hibiki Whisky

Launched in 1989 to commemorate Suntory’s philosophy of living in harmony with people and nature, Hibiki celebrates the Japanese concept of harmony. The name Hibiki means “resonance” in Japanese. This is a blend of many different malts and grain whiskies, all of which are carefully aged in mizunara oak casks. It has a floral aroma with delicate hints of hibiscus, white pepper, and a mix of tree fruits.

Hakushu Whisky

Hakushu is a single malt whisky that is made from the waters of Mount Kaikomagatake, in a mountain range considered the Alps of Japan. The water (designated as among Japan’s most precious) is incredibly pure, as it is filtered through millennia-old granite rocks. Hakushu is a smoky style of whisky, often described as being “elegant” and “refined”. It also has some fresh herbal notes, inspired by the single malts of Islay in Scotland.

Chita Whisky

Chita Distillery in the Chita Peninsula is dedicated to the pursuit of making diverse grain whiskies. Through a continuous distillation process using two, three or four columns, the Chita Distillery mainly creates three types of grain whisky—clean, medium, and heavy. These whiskies have been aged in a variety of casks before coming together to produce the Chita Single Grain Whisky. Sublimely smooth, versatile, and complex with subtle sweetness, Chita is a smooth whisky.

What you need to try from Suntory

Now it’s time for our favourite part: a list of our favourite whiskies from Suntory labels to absolutely try!

Yamazaki 1995
Distillery: Yamazaki
Bottling Series: Suntory Single Malt Whisky
Distilled: 1995
Bottled: 2007
Stated Age: 12 years old
Cask type: Sherry Butt
Number of bottles: 2000
Strength: 61.0 % Vol.
Size: 700 ml
Hakushu 1998
Distillery: Hakushu
Bottling Series: Suntory Single Cask Whisky
Distilled: 1998
Bottled: 2012
Cask type: Hogshead
Strength: 58.0 % Vol.
Size: 700 ml
Yamazaki 1979
Distillery: Yamazaki
Bottling Series
: The Cask of Yamazaki
Distilled: 1979
Bottled:.2008
Stated Age: 29 years old
Casktype: Japanese Mizunara Oak Cask
Number of bottles: 294
Strength: 55.0 % Vol.
Size: 700 ml
Label: 山崎
Chita Aichi Edition
Category: Single Grain
Distillery: Chita
Bottled: 2014
Calculated age: 12 years old
Strength: 43.0 % Vol.
Size: 700 ml

Celebration time! 100 years of House of Suntory

We end this article with the opening news: the centennial of Suntory!

Of course, a special birthday requires special celebrations. And Suntory certainly didn’t shy away from it. For the anniversary, Suntory has prepared a series of surprises for its fans: some limited-edition expressions plus a special film, the ‘Suntory Anniversary Tribute’. Created by Academy Award-winning director Sofia Coppola, the film features actor Keanu Reeves.  

The limited-edition releases included Yamazaki 18-Year-Old Mizunara and Hakushu 18-Year-Old Peated Malt whiskies, as well as 100th-anniversary labels – with commemorative centennial packaging – of the flagship Yamazaki 12-Year-Old and Hakushu 12-Year-Old

These will be available at selected travel retail locations from mid-June, supported by a series of immersive pop-up activations and advertising campaigns.

Yamazaki 18 Year Old Mizunara

Launched as part of the distillery’s Yamazaki range, Yamazaki 18-Year-Old Mizunara (Alc 48%) is a single malt aged in rare Mizunara oak casks. Suntory first began experimenting with Mizunara cask finishes in the 1940s, with earlier expressions produced by Master Blenders Shinjiro Torii and Keizo Saji.

Yamazaki 18-Year-Old Mizunara is a luxurious whisky with a lingering and elegant finish. It has aromas of black cherry and ripe stone fruit, with spice notes that continue onto the palate. The palate is also marked by exotic base tones of incense, sandalwood, and coconut.

Yamazaki 18-Year-Old Mizunara is a limited-edition whisky that will retail for £1,600. It is available at selected sellers, including Harrods, The Whisky Exchange, and The Whisky Shop. 

Hakushu 18 Year Old Peated Malt

The second new release comes from Suntory’s Hakushu distillery, one of the highest distilleries in the world, which opened in 1973 on Mount Kaikoma in Yamanashi. Hakushu 18-Year-Old Peated Malt (Alc 48%) is a blend of specially selected malt whiskies, all aged for a minimum of 18 years.

Rich, complex and intense, Hakushu 18-Year-Old Peated Malt combines signature smokiness with layers of citrus and herbs, plus sweeter honeyed notes.

This bottle will retail for £1,275 and will be available in exclusive shops, including Harrods, The Whisky Exchange and The Whisky Shop.

In Conclusion

We have seen the evolution of the House of Suntory’s world. Now all you have to do is join the celebration with a glass of their whiskies! Which is your absolute favourite? Share this article on your social media and tag us to let us know!

*The pictures featured in this article are from house.suntory.com

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