Learn about Suntory Whisky
The early history of Japanese whisky is pretty much the history of Suntory. Suntory, for a long time called Torii Shoten and then Kotobukiya, did not acquire its present name until after the war. It was the first company in Japan to make whisky. While something resembling whisky was sold in Japan before Suntory, one would be very generous to actually call it whisky. These were cheap, distilled drinks with a similar colour to whisky, but the comparison ends there. It took a young ambitious entrepreneur named Torii Shinjito to bring the real drink to Japan.
Torii was born in Osaka in 1879. Like today, Osaka was a major business hub in Japan. Torii left school at 13 to pursue apprenticeship as a storekeeper. He was interested in brewing and studied techniques for blending sake. He also learned about foreign drinks such as wines. In 1907 he launched his brand of sweet wine called Akadama Port Wine; it proved a great success and boosted his company considerably. But one successful wine was not enough for Torii. He wanted something more. After tasting a few bottles of wine he had forgotten for years in his cellar, he became interested in the concept of maturation. He decided to study it more in order to make a genuine strong drink — preferably whisky.
The idea didn’t impress the directors of his company. They thought that making real whisky was not possible outside the cold climates of Scotland and Ireland, and investing all the company’s hard-earned money into a distillery was enormously risky. But Torii was undeterred. He wanted to forge on no matter what, and he did. Around this time he met Masataka Taketsuru, a young man who had spent time in Scotland learning the art of whisky-making. Like Torii, Masataka was obsessed with whisky-making and wanted to open up a distillery in Japan. Hokkaido was his preferred location, as the climate was relatively similar to Scotland’s; however, Torii feared that the transportation costs would be too great and opted for building the distillery near Osaka.
In 1923, he invested most of his company’s assets into building the Yamazaki distillery, the first distillery in the country. The chosen location was close to Mount Tenno, famed for pure and undiluted water. Masataka was appointed chief of operations. He worked for the company for over a decade, overseeing the brewing of the first genuine Japanese whisky. It was launched in 1929 and simply named Suntory Whisky, although it was generally called Shirofuda (literally, “white label”) after the colour of the label on the flask.
The reception, however, was disappointing. Japanese drinkers were unused to the strong taste of whisky and turned their backs on it. It wasn’t until 1937 that a whisky the Japanese would truly appreciate arrived. This was called Suntory Kabunin (“square bottle”), which is still widely sold to this day. Despite the success of Kabunin, the whisky industry was operating at a loss, but this would change with the advent of war. The Japanese army and navy were mad for whisky and demanded that Torii supply them with the stuff. He did and saw his fortunes turn. After the war, the U.S. army proved no less a fan of whisky and Torii continued to sell. Business was booming. The name of the company was changed in the 1960s to Suntory, taken from the name of the company’s most famous whisky (Suntory is actually just “Torii san” backwards with a Western spelling). By the 1970s, demand for whisky was such that another distillery was set up, deep in the forests of Mount Kaikomagatake in Yamanashi prefecture.
Today, Suntory has two whisky distilleries: the Hakushu and the original Yamazaki. Each distillery’s whisky is a little different from the other’s, mostly due to different water. The water in Hakushu passes through the granite layers of Mount Kaihomagatake, making it extremely pure. The Hakushu distillery furthermore focuses on malt whiskies.
Along with Nikka, Suntory is the best-known whisky maker in Japan. Its whiskies, especially the Yamazaki and Hibiki, have won several international awards and recognitions. The Yamazaki 12 Year Old was the first Japanese whisky to win a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge in London in 2003. In 2010, Suntory was awarded as the best distiller in the world, while Hibiki has been named the best whisky in the world year after year.
Suntory does not only make whisky; the company also produces beers, cocktails, liqueurs and spirits as well as non-alcoholic drinks. It is also a distributor for Pepsi in Japan. In the last few years, the company has expanded considerably, even negotiating a possible merger with Kirin (canceled). In 2009, Suntory acquired the French soft drink brand Orangina as well as the New Zealand-based Frucor energy drinks. In 2014, the company bought the U.S. bourbon maker Beam Inc, now named Beam Suntory. The drinks division of British-based GlaxoSmithKline was also acquired. It will definitely be exciting to follow Suntory and its whiskies in the coming years as the company expands and its world-class whisky conquers new markets.