If you’re a fan of whisky in general, then odds are you’ve heard of Suntory. Actually, even if you aren’t a fan of whisky you’ve probably heard the name in passing somewhere. The company is, after all, the third largest drinks company in the world. They manage many brands, including Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Pepsi.
Fans of Japanese whisky have definitely heard of and admire Suntory, as it’s the company that started the whisky movement in Japan and single-handedly made Japanese whisky the global phenomenon it is today.
However, as popular as the company is, few know the true, full story behind Suntory, and most likely haven’t heard the fun, interesting facts we’re about to dish out. Excited? You should be.
Kotobukiya – All About The Wine?
The company was officially named Suntory in 1963, however, before this, the company was known throughout Japan as Kotobukiya, and before that as Torii Shoten. Founded in 1899, Torii Shoten was Shinjiro Torii’s small wine store in Osaka.
Yep, you heard it, wine. Torii was hugely fascinated with Western wines and had come into contact with a popular Spanish wine trader. Despite the lack of popularity of Torii’s wines in Japan at first, he worked hard, and eventually, his wine products became a hit across the country.
Suntory’s Hit Product Wasn’t Whisky.
One of these hit wines was named Akadama Port Wine, meaning red ball, the symbol of Japan’s flag.
Throughout the years since the inception of Kotobukiya, Torii worked tirelessly to push his whisky blends and make them a staple in Japan. This took a long time, and during these difficult times, Torii created many other products, with the simple goal of keeping the cash flow going. Curry powder, tooth paste, and tea were a few of these creations. But Torii’s port wine was the true success, and money maker, which helped Suntory Whisky move forward many times over the years.
Whisky In Japan Tasted Nothing Like The Whisky We Know And Love
While we all love Japanese whisky today and are fascinated by its high quality, it’s important to understand that things weren’t always so. While Scotland always had rules in place for Scotch, stipulating that a high ratio of malt must be used in Scotch production, the rules in Japan were much looser.
For decades whisky in Japan could comprise of 0-5% “authentic whisky” meaning it had to be made with malt and be aged for at least three years. The other 100-95% comprised of blending alcohol, colourings, and flavour additives.
In short, this meant that the cheapest whisky in Japan could be made with zero authentic whisky, so no malt, no maturation, and no specific production methods. It must have tasted wonderful… Not!
World War II – One of Suntory Whisky’s Most Profitable Periods
When one speaks of Japan during WWII the image that comes to mind is a country in ruins, suffering from a lack of food, medicine and other daily necessities for survival. While this was true, for Japanese whisky, this was one of the most profitable periods in history.
The reason was simple – Whisky became as necessary to the Japanese Navy as rum was for the British Navy. Suntory put it well, saying: “Liquor is inherent in war.” The demand for Akadama Port Wine and Suntory Whisky rose each year during the war. As the bulk of the whisky produced was bought by the army and navy, sales continued to boom, while marketing became unnecessary.
Acquiring raw materials, like barley, during a period of great shortage also became easier, as Suntory was assisted by the army wide networks.
Who Started The Hakushu Distillery?
When people think of Suntory, they often assume that founder Shinjiro Torii did everything that has made the company a global goliath today. However, while it is true that Torii started everything with the Yamazaki distillery and was a genius at marketing and promoting products, as well as an amazing blender, he didn’t do everything.
Fifty years after building the Yamazaki distillery, Keizo Saji, Torii’s son, took Suntory to new heights by building the Hakushu Distillery. The site took years of researching, and the difference in the climate and altitude meant that the portfolio of Suntory whisky flavours doubled with this new production site.
Hakushu was, at the time, the biggest distillery in the world, with the vision of producing huge volumes of the Suntory Old range, the company’s best seller at the time.
Saji took a largely scientific approach to whisky making and was also responsible for pioneering the amazing Suntory advertisements that have stayed with the Japanese population decades since they were released.
Torii was a legend, but his son doesn’t fall far behind.
Suntory De Mexico
In 1962, Keizo Saji, looking beyond the Japanese market, established Suntory de Mexico SA in Mexico City with the aim to produce Torys whisky there. Whisky consumption was growing in Mexico at that time and Suntory aimed to grow popular quickly with their locally produced whisky.
Unfortunately, the venture didn’t go well, and the whisky just didn’t taste as good as it did in Japan. The production methods are unknown; whether whisky was shipped from Yamazaki and blended in the country with blending alcohol or made there is unclear. All that’s for sure is that Mexican Torys whisky didn’t taste good.
Suntory’s Highball Campaign Brought Japanese Whisky “Back To Life”
As this had been done before, it isn’t that exciting, but in 2008 Suntory made a move that played a huge role in the Japanese whisky’s new rise in popularity, after years of being overshadowed by beer and shochu.
The campaign focus was on the whisky highball, or Suntory Kakubin highball to be precise. Up until that point the mizuwari (whisky and water) serve was popular, however, the quality of the water was key, and bad quality water could ruin the experience. Whisky and soda, on the other hand, was more stable with a smaller chance of being of inferior quality.
Through great marketing, and the hiring of the most famous actress in Japan at the time, Koyuki, who many may know from her part in The Last Samurai, the highball became a great success and continued to grow for years. Surveys held nationwide after a few years of the campaign showed steady growth for the whisky market, with the highball being the main catalyst.
There’s much more to mention about such an old, interesting, and successful company, but if we did the list would never end! Do you know of any strange, unusual facts about Suntory? Feel free to mention them in the comments section below.